From gravel pit to haven for wildlife

For years the BBC Springwatch series has been a highlight of the television year. This year Bill Oddie and Co will be based in East Anglia. PAUL GEATER visited Pensthorpe nature reserve in Norfolk to see where this year's show will be coming from - and found out just what attracted the programme makers to the area.

Paul Geater

For years the BBC Springwatch series has been a highlight of the television year. This year Bill Oddie and Co will be based in East Anglia. PAUL GEATER visited Pensthorpe nature reserve in Norfolk to see where this year's show will be coming from - and found out just what attracted the programme makers to the area.

A QUARTER of a century ago Pensthorpe, a few miles outside Fakenham in the heart of rural Norfolk, was a series of

gravel pits with an alien landscape that did little to attract wildlife.

Now it is teeming with native species - and is also home to several exotic birds that are under threat in their own countries.

Pensthorpe is also at the heart of an ambitious proposal to reintroduce the European Crane to Britain. It is a species that has been extinct in this country since the 16th century, but wilderness areas in the country have been identified as potential areas for a successful re-introduction.

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It opened as a wildfowl centre in 1988 after gravel workings beside the River Wensum were dug out.

Initially it was mainly known as a home for exotic wildfowl, but over the years it has become more important as a nature reserve for native species.

The reserve is 250 acres, but it is next to a 600-acre organic farm. Both the farm and nature reserve are now owned by the Jordan family - famous for wholegrain

cereals and bars - and are all managed to encourage wildlife.

Although only the reserve is open to the public, visitors can see the farm from a special vehicle, the Wensum Discovery Tour, which makes regular tours during the day.

The reserve itself is centred on the former gravel pits which have now been landscaped and provide a perfect habitat for wildfowl, including divers which need deep water to thrive.

A modern visitors' centre gives information about the birds and other wildlife - and huge walk-through aviaries give visitors the chance to see at close quarters rare British birds that you are lucky to see through binoculars on other reserves.

But it is on the walks away from the visitor centre that visitors get real close encounters with British wildlife - and it is this which attracted the Springwatch team to Pensthorpe.

A walk along the River Wensum gives people the change to spot many different species, and a hide in the woods gives the perfect opportunity to see songbirds feeding on seeds and nuts.

There was nothing to see when I went into the hide, but within five minutes the trees were alive - and a long-tailed tit started enjoying the feast on offer just inches away.

Pensthorpe will remain open to the public throughout the Springwatch season which seems certain to boost its visitor numbers - but in truth it is worth a visit at any time of the year.

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