The Weavers’ Way is famous in Norfolk and runs from Cromer on the north coast of the county to Great Yarmouth on the east coast. Because of the different habitats this track runs through – woodland, farmland, fen, heath and wetland, – there is a variety of wildlife and plants.
Comfrey is a plant which grows in the damper parts of the Weavers’ Way and it can have flowers that are bluish-pink, purple or creamy white. It is quite invasive and will quickly spread in the right conditions, so it is wise to make sure you really want it before planting it in your garden. It is difficult to get rid of, even digging it out will not always be successful; leave a tiny piece of root and, like nettles, back it will come! However, Comfrey does have its uses in the garden; it is high in nutrients and will make an excellent liquid fertiliser if the leaves are left in a bucket of water for a while. (It smells awful!) Also, bees like the purple flowers and their presence will encourage the bees to pollinate your other plants. Comfrey has a long root which will reach into the subsoil enabling the plant to find water, even in a drought when other plants will suffer from lack of moisture, so it’s a great survivor.
Comfrey has been used medicinally for centuries; the first known written record was in 400 BC. It is reputed to accelerate the healing of wounds and also broken bones which gives it the alternative name of ‘Knitbone’.
Bracken is another invasive plant that grows in places along the track. This month the new shoots appear, tightly curled looking like the ends of violins and known as ‘fiddleheads’ for this reason. It is the most common fern in Britain and will quickly colonise woodland, heath and pastures, shading out other plants and contaminating the soil with a toxin, although bluebells seem to be tolerant and will grow underneath Bracken. In the past it was gathered and used as cowshed and stable bedding but as we now know that it is poisonous to animals, this practice has ceased. Grazing animals tend to be affected in late summer when they may be short of forage and eat bracken because other plants have died down; it can also be accidentally included in hay. As it contains carcinogens, people have been warned not to walk through a patch of the plant; it also often shelters sheep ticks so another reason why it should be avoided.
In all, the Weavers’ Way is approximately 60 miles long and is composed of footpaths, dismantled railway tracks and stretches of road; some parts are used as bridle and cycle paths. It is a favourite dog walking place and there is even a memorial bench to a Border Collie, called Jesse, who loved to run and sniff his way along the track. We got to know Jesse quite well; even though he lived a couple of miles away, every time one of our bitches was in season he would come courting, his nose pressed against the french window, wagging his tail and smiling hopefully.
Like dogs many animals mark their territories with urine and some will also use faeces. There’s a fox that uses a particular place on the Weavers’ Way to tell other foxes that this is his patch. The scent of a fox’s mark is very strong and gassy and persists for quite a long time; as it fades he renews it, which is of deep interest to our dogs!
The Muntjac deer also marks its territory with urine and faeces, will paw the ground to leave its scent and the males will scrape gouges on the trunks of trees with their tusks, which are elongated canine teeth. These deer have two sets of glands on their faces which secrete a liquid; the frontal, V shaped on the forehead, and the pre-orbitals, under the eyes. They are used to place their scent on the ground, trunks and twigs. Being generally solitary deer they will mark more than deer that live in herds which, because they live within sight and hearing of each other, communicate visually and vocally as well. The Muntjac originally comes from Asia and was imported as an exotic for parkland on large estates. Inevitably there were escapees which successfully bred and the species quickly spread across Britain; there are certainly plenty of them in Norfolk.
Another escapee from exotic collections, which has established itself in parts of the country, is the Egyptian goose and there are higher numbers of this bird in Norfolk than anywhere else in Britain. They can be found feeding and nesting on the coast, along rivers, in gravel pits and ornamental ponds. Although they are classed as geese they are, in fact, closely related to the Shelduck and don’t have the typical goose-like appearance; they look more like a cross between a duck and a goose. Unusually, for this type of bird, it is quite at home in trees and will often nest in holes in the trunks and roost among branches.
The Egyptian goose is originally from sub-Saharan Africa and the Nile Valley where, as well as being a wild bird, it has been domesticated and bred for food. It appears in much of the art of the ancient Egyptians and was considered to be a sacred bird in those times.
Falcons, which also feature in Egyptian art, have become part of city wildlife in Britain. Peregrines are nesting again on Norwich cathedral spire and originally had four eggs but it seems that the female punctured one of them and probably ate the damaged egg. To eat your children might seem a bit gruesome to us but nothing edible is wasted by these birds. Many people have told me that they get a great deal of pleasure watching the live web cam on the nesting platform and a question that keeps coming up is ‘How fast can these birds really fly?’ An American pilot, named Ken Franklin, gave us the answer. He took his pet peregrine, ‘Frightful’, sky diving and clocked the bird’s top speed at an amazing 242 miles per hour! This is achieved when the falcon is stooping, tucking its wings and feet tightly to its body and diving head first from a considerable height; its nostrils are specially adapted to enable it to breathe during this manoeuvre. This is how a peregrine hunts, dropping on to a bird in the air and they can be seen catching pigeons in this way in Norwich and other cities.
Activities to take part in this month include: