Patrick Barkham: The acclaimed author looking after Norfolk's wildlife
- Credit: Sonya Duncan
We stand surrounded by trees, wrapped in what could be age-old woodland. Further along the path, forest has covered the land for a thousand years or more. But right here, in a glade where intense sunlight has set everything to shimmer, the rich mixed woodland of oak and ash, silver birch and guelder rose, hazel and sallow, blackthorn and hawthorn is younger than Patrick.
Patrick Barkham has known the Norfolk Wildlife Trust (NWT) reserve at Foxley Wood, near Reepham, almost all his life after his ecologist and conservationist father led the campaign to save it for the county and posterity.
Ten years ago Patrick Barkham he came to Foxley Wood with his twin baby daughters and saw saplings beginning to grow. “As soon as the twins were born I came here, to Foxley, with the double buggy,” said Patrick. “The new babies took root in the family as the new trees grew.”
Now the trees have grown tall, their burgeoning trunks and branches, and the ground beneath, already rich with wildlife. Foxley Wood is reclaiming its land.
“Foxley Wood was mentioned in the Domesday Book. It is Norfolk’s largest ancient woodland. But the trees here were rooted up and burned in the 1960s,” said Patrick.
“The glorious patchwork of trees and bushes, rich with wildlife from the leaf mould of a thousand autumns on the forest floor, up to the new spring growth in the canopy, was replaced by a monoculture of non-native pines. Sunlight could not penetrate.”
Patrick describes how part of the forest was cleared, sprayed with herbicide, and turned into a Forestry Commission plantation. It was this land which his father, John Barkham, saw in the 1970s and knew could be rewilded – decades before the word, or practice, were widely known.
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“The magic in the soil was still there,” said Patrick, who is now president of the Norfolk Wildlife Trust.
The Trust looks after nature reserves ranging from Patrick’s beloved Foxley Wood at the heart the county to Roydon Common in the west and Martham Broad in the east; from tiny Kay Cliffs at East Runton on the north coast to expansive Thetford Heath in the south. It also has the nation’s oldest wildlife trust reserve (at Cley) and its smallest (a single tree in Hethel.)
Patrick spent much of his childhood in the wild places of Norfolk, growing up near Reepham and spending holidays at Holme, near Hunstanton.
“We rented a flat in a big house by the pines, where the North Sea merges into the Wash and I spent wonderful holidays there when I was a kid,” said Patrick. “There are dunes and mud flats and beach, and wildflowers in the summer and birds in the winter, and that lovely sense of space and peace.
“That’s where I fell in love with butterflies.
“My dad could name every species of bird and every plant, he seemed to be a wildlife superman, but he didn’t have superpowers with butterflies. We learned about them together.”
At Foxley they searched for the purple emperor butterfly in its last known habitat in Norfolk. “The purple emperor is the most charismatic of all the British butterflies,” said Patrick. “It’s the second biggest, after the swallowtail of Norfolk, and is a shimmering iridescent purple. It disappeared from Foxley Wood last, and then was extinct in the whole of East Anglia.”
Every July, when purple emperors had once flown over Foxley, he and his dad used to hope it would return, but never saw one. Then, 10 years ago, purple emperor butterflies began being seen in East Anglia and finally Patrick saw one in Foxley – and has every year since.
Patrick’s acclaimed first book, The Butterfly Isles, focused on his quest to see all 59 British breeds of butterfly in a single summer. The next, Badgerlands, was called “a must read for all Britain's naturalists,” by Chris Packham. Coastlines and Islander were lyrical journeys around some of the most remote parts of the country and almost as soon as his twin girls were born, he began Wild Child, focusing on how being immersed in nature can help children grow up healthier and happier.
After his own rural childhood Patrick went on to study at Cambridge University and then trained as a journalist with the Guardian, where he specialises in writing about the natural world. He worked in London and Australia and was dreaming of a return to Norfolk when he met his wife, who is also from Norfolk.
So, did Patrick and Lisa meet on a Norfolk nature reserve? They did not. “We met a party in Brixton!” said Patrick. “I had been in London for 10 years and was looking to come home, Lisa had been away for four months and was not looking to go straight back!”
Eventually they were both ready to return and now live in Hoveton with twin daughters Milly and Esme, and son, Ted. All three children began their formal education in the forest – at the Dandelion Forest School near Aylsham which Patrick loved so much that he became a weekly volunteer. Today the children go to the village school, with a day a week outside in Forest School. Patrick is eloquent on the joys of both.
He would love to see more green spaces for all children to play, with everyone, whether growing up in the countryside, town or city, living just a short walk from mini reserves.
“I grew up in a house which backed on to Booton Common. It’s just a little bit of green. There are lots of these in Norfolk, little bits of wild land that people don’t really know about. I think everyone should be able to access nature, not just on a day trip to someone like here at Foxley, but somewhere for children to ride their bikes, mess about in a stream,” said Patrick.
“I'm really keen to show people that Norfolk's nature is for everyone – and no matter what your background, how much you know about wildlife or where you live, you will be welcome on Norfolk Wildlife Trust's reserves.
“I think sometimes people are a little intimidated about visiting a nature reserve because they feel they don't know enough about nature. Parents worry their children will be bored or they won't be able to help them identify birds or plants. It doesn't matter!
“Nature is this amazing free source of fun, solace and wonder, and none of us are ‘experts’ but we can all enjoy it. I think now after all the lockdowns a lot of people are coming afresh to nature, and discovering it anew. This is brilliant, and I welcome them and every other beginner in nature.”
Talking to experts can be exhilarating. Patrick is one of those gifted naturalists who can transform the pleasant shades of green and brown I see in a hedge or tangle of woodland into individual and amazing living things, simply by naming them. A series of swooping cries from above draws his eye to five birds circling the bright blue sky and suddenly they are not just birds but four buzzards and a peregrine falcon. This ability to name, and understand, a plant from its leaf or a bird from its call or a mammal from its footprint is a naturalist’s super-power, a key to another dimension.
Understanding, and valuing, this dimension could be vital to pushing back against looming climate disaster and Patrick points to changes that are already allowing nature back into Norfolk landscapes and our lives, linking isolated nature reserves and green spaces, seething with wildlife, along corridors of meadow or hedge or riverbank or woodland.
“Let’s create more,” he said. “We are not going to take prime farmland. With regenerative farming you can have a good business and care about the land.
“My boyhood best friend is a farmer. I totally believe in working with farmers and not against them. The 1980s were a low point. Since then things have improved so much. A new generation are farming in such a different way.”
Patrick said he feels hugely honoured to be made president of the Trust, which has been part of his life for as long as he can remember. “I will do everything I can to help NWT protect wildlife both on nature reserves and beyond them, so we can all enjoy the great benefits of a nature-rich Norfolk – at a time when we need a wilder world more than ever,” he said.
“When we look at how we want Norfolk to be in the future, if we look at north Norfolk, how many motorways are there in North Norfolk? How many out-of-town shopping centres? How many nuclear power stations? And which is the wealthiest place? Which is where everyone wants to spend time?
“I really believe that nature enriches us all and I mean that in monetary terms as well as spiritual. It’s easy to be really despairing but the only antidote is local action and to live more in harmony with nature.”
At Foxley he has seen the transformation of plantation monoculture and neighbouring dense and overgrown woods. The ancient woodland is being coppiced once again, with upright sticks of new growth allowed to emerge from a base which might be centuries old.
“For centuries it had been a resource for local people,” said Patrick, “Taking hazel sticks for building their wattle and daub cottages, allowing pigs to forage the undergrowth for acorns, using oak in leather tanning. Branches of Foxley oaks helped power Norwich’s shoe industry.”
Foxley Wood nature reserve is growing outwards too. Acorns buried by jays and squirrels on former farmland taken on by the Trust will become the oak trees of the future, alongside the 350 other species which moved back to Foxley’s restored woodland.
“It’s natural regeneration,” said Patrick. “And this is what we should be doing more of. Nature finds a way. It just wants to grow.
“Nature is the gift which keeps giving. Foxley is not just an amazing place for wildlife; it is also storing carbon. No-one was thinking about carbon or mental health when it was saved, but now people are coming here to help anxiety and depression. It’s enriching us all.”
At the end of our walk we see a young ash tree, its branches gaunt and dead from ash die back. Even this does not faze Patrick. “At first the disease seemed terrible,” he said. “But the dead wood provides food for beetles and fungus grows on it and woodpeckers come and feed. A guelder rose is growing up it. We get very wound up about a lot of environmental problems but the answer is in nature. We just have to look after nature and it will sort out the problems for us.
“We need to help it flourish and then we can flourish too.”
Norfolk Wildlife Trust was Britain's first Wildlife Trust, launched in 1926 with the acquisition of Cley Marshes. It has 60-plus nature reserves, more than 36,000 members and 1,200 active volunteers.
It is working to rebuild fragmented ecological networks across the county and runs projects to connect children with the natural world.