Friday, 19 June 2015

June 19th Top Secret Location

Southern Marsh Orchid
If you were to name some of the rarest living things you can find in Norfolk, you would probably say swallowtail butterfly, Norfolk hawker dragonfly, water vole or bittern. All good answers, but what about plants? There are many rare plants in Norfolk, some of them only found on a few sites in this county and nowhere else. One of them is the endangered fen orchid, only found on three locations in England, all in Norfolk, and one other in Wales. It is so rare that the location I have come to see them has to be kept a secret to prevent illegal orchid collectors from taking them. I'm afraid I'm not allowed to tell you where I went today for this reason.

The location is not accessable to the public, so I have joined a small group for a special guided walk by our guide Richard who is the site's manager. The fen orchids will be last on our tour, but we have a few other plants to see first. We crossed a meadow to the reserve and we saw lots of southern marsh orchids.

The waterways of the secret location
Great Water-parsnip
When we got to the reserve, we were shown some of the plants growing in and around the ditches. White and yellow water-lilies provided platforms for red-eyed damselflies and the flowers had opened, providing colour to the waterways. Richard pointed out two species of water-parsnip growing near the edges of the ditches. The lesser water-parsnip is quite common, but the great water-parsnip is an endangered species and the Norfolk Broads is one of its strongholds. It is a much larger plant compared to its smaller cousin. Like a lot of the other rare plants here, the decline is mainly due to drainage and water acidity levels, but this special reserve is well managed and is kept under control by the RSPB volunteers working here.

Lesser Water-parsnip
White Water-lily
Yellow Water-lily
Garden Tiger Moth Caterpillar
Tubular Water-dropwort
Marsh Fern
Into the bog!
Our next stop was into the boggy fen itself. That meant walking over a surface that felt like I was walking on a spongy trampoline that was full of hidden water-filled holes, which looked shallow but could actually have you up to your waist (that episode from The Vicar of Dibley comes to mind!). Good job I brought a pair of wellies, a pair of overtrousers and my hiking stick with me today!

Geared up for bog walking!
Richard shows us some of the sedges
Greater Bladderwort
Richard showed us some interesting sedges and other waterplants that have made themselves home in this boggy landscape. My favourite were the bladderworts. The small yellow flower poking above the surface is pretty and delicate, but below the surface, is a different side to the plant's nature. The leaves of the bladderwort is a deathtrap! It is full of little traps called bladders and they capture the tiny aquatic invertebrates that swim too close. Bladderworts are carnivores! They get all the nutrients they need from their prey.

Bladderwort leaves - can you see the bladders?
Lesser Water Plantain
Marsh Stitchwort
Tree Bumblebee on Marsh Thistle
We eventually came out of the bog and were back onto much sturdier ground. Peacock caterpillars covered large patches of stinging nettle. But not all the nettles here can sting you, as Richard demonstrates with another species called the fen nettle. Marsh harriers flew over us as we looked at more special plants. We came across a Norolk hawker, four-spotted chasers and azure damselflies as well as a hobby as we made our way towards where the fen orchids were growing.

Peacock Caterpillars
Fen Nettle
Marsh Harrier
Greater Spearwort
Marsh Thistle and Bumblebee
Four-spotted Chaser
Azure Damselfly
Mixed Wildflowers
Spot the fen orchids!
Richard led us past a paddock of buttercups and a paddock of mixed wildflowers. Then we had to cross an electric fence (which Richard turned off for us). We were taken to an area which was slightly boggy but full of ferns and... fen orchids! These plants were hard to see by ourselves as fen orchids are green and blended in with everything else growing here, which was also green. If it wasn't for Richard, we could have easily had walked past them without knowing they were there. They were so tiny, but once you've got your eye in, there were many clustered together in several small patches.

Can you see them now?
Fen Orchid
 Richard told us that many people get disappointed when they see these plants. I could see his point. They are tiny, green and easily overlooked, but the fact that they are rare and found here and three other places in the UK makes them rather special in my eye. The flowers are green, delicate and look like tentacles. Some poke out above the canopy of ferns in their minature world, like royalty looking over their kingdom from the top balcony of their palace.

There was a couple of other rarities to see before we we had to leave. First was the crested buckler-fern, a critically endangered fern which grows here and one other site in Norfolk and nowhere else. Our other rarity was a swallowtail. This large beautiful butterfly (our second of the day) landed in the kingdom of the fen orchids, giving us great views before flying away. To finish off our guided tour, we came across an early marsh orchid and then the largest, most impressive fen orchid of them all. What an adventure!

Royal Fern
Early Marsh Orchid


  1. What a great trip. I also found some really tiny rare green orchids today. Getting a touch of orchid fever I think!!

    1. Cost me £36 and a lot of walking through mud to see my fen orchids. Hope yours was cheaper and drier? lol.