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Norfolk Broads: wildlife-watching on a wetland safari

The Broads is the UK’s smallest national park, but its web of waterways covering 117sq miles offers big rewards for wildlife watchers.

Ormesby Little Broad, part of the freshwater lakes that make up the Broads’ waterways

Photograph by Getty
By Ben Lerwill
Published 11 May 2022, 15:14 BST

It’s early morning on the Broads. The sky is a cold, clear blue. The marshlands are filigreed with frost. Three of us are stepping quietly through the reed beds of Candle Dyke, nearing an old eel-catchers’ hut at the water’s edge, when a winter flypast stops us in our tracks. A flock of 100 punk-haired birds sails overhead, northwards towards the coast. “Lapwings”, confirms Emily Leonard, one of the two Broads Authority team members joining me for the day. Then high-pitched peeps start emanating from the straw-coloured banks of sedge nearby. Emily raises a finger, smiles and whispers, “Kingfisher.”

The Broads is the UK’s smallest national park, covering some 117 square miles (the largest, the Cairngorms, stretches to almost 1,750 square miles), but this doesn’t correlate with the size of its appeal. I’m here in January, when the mirror-calm waterways are near-empty and the skies are busy with birds, some of them year-round residents, others seasonal fly-ins from Siberia and Scandinavia. Norfolk’s Hickling Broad is the main focal point of my trip, although as a sidenote, the Broads stretch well across the county border into Suffolk, so the often-used term ‘Norfolk Broads’ is something of a misnomer. Not that the birdlife gives a hoot.    

Soon, we’re out on the water in a dinky craft known locally as a picnic boat. It has an awning at the front and open-air seating at the back, and it putters unhurriedly along the narrow, twisting channels that connect the wider bodies of water. The pepper-pot outlines of old drainage mills punctuate the flat landscape; otherwise, all is reeds and sky. On one tranquil stretch we pass a moored houseboat just as a hatch opens to reveal a woolly-hatted head and a steaming cuppa. “Morning,” says the man, casually. He’s one of the only people we see all day.

A black and white windmill typical of the Broads National Park.

Photograph by Getty

We soon spot our first marsh harrier, vacating its perch on a leafless alder. An hour later we’ve seen dozens of them, broad-winged predators flapping above the banks in search of water voles and other consumables. Elsewhere, we pass silent cormorants standing sentry on marker posts, kohl-eyed Egyptian geese drifting on the currents and — pow! — the thrilling electric-blue shiver of a speeding kingfisher. When we reach the broad itself, clusters of pretty gadwalls are dabbling in the shallows.

“There — cranes!” cries Emily’s colleague Hannah Southon. Above us, five pale, giant birds are crossing the sky, their heads scarlet and their long necks outstretched, flamingo-style. They seem at once exotic and perfectly at home, beating their wings hard and steady as they fly. The birds, which are an incredible five feet tall when standing, were once extinct in Britain, before eggs were imported from the continent. Their reintroduction to the wetlands here in Norfolk has been a much-vaunted conservation success story.  

More than a quarter of Britain’s rarest wildlife species are found on the Broads — among them swallowtail butterflies, otters and fen orchids — so it’s not just birds that attract naturalists here. It’s fair to say, however, that ornithology rules. At the end of the day, and back on dry(ish) land, I head to the nearby reserve at Stubb Mill, where a viewing platform known as the Raptor Roost has attracted a hardy gaggle of thick-gloved birdwatchers. Gazing out across a soggy but almost savannah-like expanse, we’re treated to more marsh harriers, more cranes, and a male hen harrier ghosting through the dusk. As the winter light fades to nothing, two browsing Chinese water deer appear as if from nowhere, ginger shapes in the gloom.

The wildlife finale comes early the next morning, however, on the edge of the national park at Horsey Beach. From the car park, I climb to the top of the dunes and look along the sands, to be greeted by the winter spectacle I’d expected: a breeding colony of more than 450 Atlantic grey seals. Button-cute pups, pale as polar bears, wriggle between the huge, speckled zeppelins that are their parents, while a few territorial males tussle and bark in the waves. The majority of the colony, however, is snoozing on the beach — a post-breakfast slumber that seems to sum things up quite nicely. This watery swathe of East Anglia might seem sleepy, but it’s packed with life.

Konik ponies in the Broads National Park.

Photograph by Superstock

How to do it

Martham Boats, near Hickling Broad, offers electric boats for day hire from £93. Lawson Cottage B&B, in the village of Hickling, offers double rooms from £95 per night, with breakfast.

Published in the May 2022 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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