The Wheatfen Beetle

Island populations are always vulnerable.  As habitats shrink and populations become isolated they lose resilience. If you want to survive as a species then numbers and geographical reach are your friends.

The Norfolk and Suffolk Broads are home to a number of iconic species which have found a localised foothold in this watery corner of East Anglia. The outrageously lovely Swallowtail Butterfly (Papilio machaon) is probably the most recognisable. Britain’s largest butterfly with its black-veined yellow wings and blood-red spots at the base of its swallow tail it looks like a scrap of yellow handkerchief fluttering over the milk parsley. The Norfolk Hawker dragonfly (Aescha isosceles) can be found here too, patrolling the drainage ditches of the grazing marshes like a green-eyed wind-up toy. It shares some of these ditches with Britain’s largest spider, the Fen Raft Spider (Dolomedes plantarius) which has found a stronghold among the water soldier on Carlton Marshes.

But there is another species which has made its home here, less glamorous and less well-known, but no less remarkable. Galeruca laticolis is a small brown beetle barely a centimetre long – a beetle  so unprepossessing  no one has thought it necessary to give it a common name. To point to it you must still revert to Latin.

You can find maps of the range of most of these creatures in the handbooks. For the Swallowtail the area of cross-hatching covers the Norfolk and Suffolk Broads – though there are other isolated colonies on the Humber and the Isle of Wight. (As the climate warms the British sub-species of Swallowtail (britanicus) is threatened by the northward movement of its continental neighbour  (gorganus). If, as seems inevitable, the two species meet and interbreed the unique form of britanicus will be lost.)  The habitat cross-hatching for the Norfolk Hawker shares much of the territory with the Swallowtail, reaching down into the Suffolk broads. This species too is under threat, this time from loss of habitat as rising sea levels bring salt water incursions into the drainage ditches where it lives and breeds. The Fen Raft spider faces a similar threat.

However, you will search in vain for the cross-hatching that delineates the range of Galeruca laticollis. Because effectively this small brown beetle has no range. It is known at a single site in the United Kingdom, a small patch of protected fen and carr in the Yare Valley. You can walk the boundaries of Wheatfen in an hour. And while the beetle is here it would be wrong to say it was easy to find. It is confined not just to this single small site, but to a small area of this single site. It likes creeping thistle. So to locate it you have to seek out patches among the reeds and search the leaf axils.

To confirm your ID you could use this description found on the website. 

Colour: brownish
Pattern colour: none
Number of spots: none
Leg colour: black

It might charitably be described as unremarkable.

But the fact it is here at all is extraordinary. The whole of the Yare Valley is under threat from rising sea levels. It would take very little to upset the delicate ecological balance of the few square metres of marshland where Galeruca laticollis lives. An exceptionally high tide would probably do it.

We have grown used to the idea of ecological collapse, but all too often the narrative of melting ice caps, acidified oceans and disappearing rainforests operates on a scale that seems overwhelming. The precarious foothold of this little brown beetle has the power to turn a global issue into an intensely local one.  Drill down into the existential crisis that threatens us all and one of the routes which opens up brings you to a small patch of creeping thistle at Wheatfen.


Grey and damp on Breydon this morning.  A low mist turned to steady rain as I headed out along the south wall.  I should probably have stayed at home. Earlier –  in the warm and dry – I’d been watching seals from the study window. Yesterday it was a small group of Gannets diving like missiles off the Outer Harbour. But not today. Today it was walking and weather.

There was little bird life to be seen from the boardwalk. In the shadow of the Roman wall I looked out across the reedbeds to Haddiscoe Island hoping for bearded tits.  (Not this time.)IMG_2112  There were godwits and peewits on the exposed  mud, a few wood pigeons in the air and thrushes in among the hawthorn berries.  But pretty soon my glasses were rained on and the scope and binoculars too – so my already limited ID skills were quickly exhausted.  But it was still perversely pleasurable walking. IMG_2111

Diggers had been at work clearing the dykes behind the wall, the spoil piled neatly on the grazing marsh.  New fencing too.

I walked as far as the Tide Jetty,  the remains just visible above the water in the mist and rain. Rehearsals start in February.  Meeting with composer Chris Warner in a week or so. We need to find a way of bottling some of this Breydon atmosphere.


The Tide Jetty

There are two tide jetties on Breydon Water.  The first, built in the 1830s,  stands at the entrance to The Narrows on the North Wall. It was built to deflect the outgoing tide into the main channel in the hope that the scouring action of the water would help keep the channel clear.  You can see what it looked like in Frederick Sandys painting Breydon Water, Norfolk. Originally two lines of posts with timber sheeters holding  a loose fill of stones, today the structure is a ruin,  only visible as a line of rotting posts at low tide. The jetty is knows locally as the Dickey Works, a name which seems to stem from the original contractor who used a donkey-driven engine to drive the piles.

The second is the turntide jetty at the mouth of the river Yare. This is a more substantial structure and has recently been rebuilt by the Broads Authority.  The original – built in the 1860s – had fallen into disrepair and become a navigational hazard.

These two jetties lie at the heart of a new play commissioned by Eastern Angles as part of the Broads Authority’s Water, Mills and Marshes  project.  This play is a development of the Breydon Crowther musical which opened the Great Yarmouth Arts Festival in 2016. (The link will take you to a copy of the original script.) This featured a cast of 5 professional actors and a 15 strong community choir. The new show will be touring to 50 venues in East Anglia so the logistics – not to mention the cost – have inevitable ruled out the choir. The challenge is to tell a convincing story of life on a Broadland Estuary with forces that  can fit in the Eastern Angles van. The Tide Jetty will inhabit the same landscape as Breydon Crowther and will once again be a collaboration with composer Chris Warner.

The writing is under way. Watch this space for updates on progress.

Breydon Crowther

A script-in-in-hand performance of Breydon Crowther, our new musical opened the Great Yarmouth Arts Festival in June this year within sight of Breydon Water where the story is set.

We had hoped for funding from the Arts Council and after they’d turned us down twice we were left with a difficult decision.  We had a handful of songs, a community choir enthusiastic about the material, and a belief that we had a good story to tell. Actually, it wasn’t a difficult decision at all. Composer Chris Warner and I had a brief discussion which lasted all of two minutes and decided to carry on. Essentially, we were going to write an entire musical on spec.

We approached various funding bodies, Eastern Angles and The Broads Authority and managed to raise enough money to fund five actors for a week and a professional director in the shape of Tim Bell (currently touring with his one man show Dame Nature – The Magnificent Bearded Lady). Then we set to work.

The resulting performance went better than we dared hope. A full house with everyone on their feet at the final curtain. The representative from the Broads Authority left with a smile on his face.

Which was good news as they have just won a £2.6 million Heritage Lottery Grant for a project they’ve called Water, Mills and Marshes which is focussed on the exact geographical area where Crowther is set. They wanted some drama input as part of the delivery of this project and put this element out to tender. Eastern Angles put in a strong pitch with Crowther as its centrepiece and got the gig.

So it looks as if our original decision to go ahead without funding has been vindicated. Breydon Crowther will get a full production. The downside is that the project won’t be delivered until 2020, which is not the sort of deadline I like. And there will have to be a deadline because the show will have to be substantially re-written. The show will have to tour. Realistically this couldn’t happen with our orginal forces of 5 actors plus 15 singers and Chris on accordion.  The  new version will be for 5 actor/musicians and a set that can fit in the Eastern Angles van


Boats heading for the outer harbour come in on a course which lines up with the window where I work.  If it wasn’t for the intervening docks and the river the same course would bring them through the front door and up the stairs. If they’re heading for the river entrance – and most of them are – they approach from the north east instead before disappearing behind the warehouses on the opposite bank of the Yare.  They average some 80m in length and for the most part with their steel hulls, high-tech navigation equipment and powerful diesel engines seem impervious to wind and weather.

Last week I looked up to see something  very different making an approach –  a wooden ketch, twin masted, with a lengthy bowsprit on a course for the river mouth under lashing sails.  It was grey and overcast. A strong wind was whipping up the sea and sending waves crashing onto Scroby Sands. The ship was being flung about by the waves as it struggled towards the shelter of the harbour. It was a scene from the 19th century which had unaccountably surfaced in the 21st.

The Marine traffic website identified the vessel as the Bonawentura an elegant 16m ketch from Poland.  And the Bonawentura was in trouble. She was getting closer to the shore, but was failing to make headway.  I didn’t know it at the time but she’d suffered engine failure and was in the process of being driven onto the rocks that made up the enclosing arm of the Outer Harbour. Before I’d managed to work out just how much trouble she was in – I could see she wasn’t going to make the river on her current course – the Gorleston all-weather lifeboat Sarmarbeta arrived at high speed.

From here on it was a race against time. After some tricky manoeuvering the crew managed to get a line on board and with very little room to spare hauled the Bonawentura backwards away from the rocks. With the immediate danger over they managed to fix up a more orthodox tow and bring the vessel home. Andrew Wilson’s Marine Traffic photo catches her arrival off Gorleston.



SW Scroby

At night, from my upstairs window, I can see the flashing light of the SW Scroby buoy. Throughout the hours of darkness its green eye blinks unwaveringly every 2.5 seconds. To my right – partially obscured this evening by the superstructure of a wind farm service vessel – is the next buoy in the chain  marking the edge of the channel formed by Yarmouth Roads and Gorleston Roads:  the  W Corton buoy.  The W Corton buoy has a green light too, but it’s easy to tell them apart. Instead of SW Scroby’s regular pulse, W Corton flashes three times in bursts ten seconds apart.

Beyond the channel lie the shifting hazards of Scroby and Corton Sands. Maritime charts of these waters carry a warning. Charted depths are not to be trusted.  A 2011 survey revealed that waters whose charted depths were 12 m were now showing a drying height of 0.3m.  Or to put it another way, where there ought to have been enough water to take the 148,000 tonnes of the Queen Mary 2 a foot of dry sand was showing above the waves.

The view was a surprise. At ground level the tiny terraced house looks out on to the blank brick wall of an industrial unit. The street narrows to 6’6″ at the far end but here is just wide enough to take a line of parked cars straddling the narrow pavement and pressing against the chain link fence. At first floor level you are above the corrugated asbestos of the adjacent roof. From here you can see the river and the quayside that makes up part of the port of Great Yarmouth. At times it’s lined with service and general cargo vessels, at others it’s deserted. Beyond the quay are warehouses, South Denes Road, and finally, the sea.   I can watch waves breaking on Scroby Sands and the occasional vessel making its way into the Outer Harbour.

This was my new world. Or at least the portion visible from the window of what inevitably became my study.

This, I remember thinking, this is going to be ok.