Spoonbills in Norfolk: making a home for a unique wildlife species

When CLA member Alice Atkinson undertook an extensive woodland management project on her farm, it led to a rare colony of spoonbills setting up home in the trees, as Lee Murphy reports
Photo by Andrew Bloomfield

Old Rectory Farm, situated on the north Norfolk coast, is home to Alice Atkinson and her family. It covers around 800 acres and is a mix of arable and grazing, woodland, meadows and a beef herd.

The farm was originally bought by Alice’s grandparents in the 1930s. There was little woodland back then, but after returning from the Second World War, her grandfather spent the late 1940s and 1950s strategically planting trees alongside his farming business.

Most of these new areas of woodland were originally a mixture of Corsican and Scots pine, but they are now also full of self-seeded natives. In the 1970s, Alice’s father continued tree planting with more native deciduous trees.

Woodland management

When Alice took over the running of the farm around 10 years ago, it was clear to her, as a trained landscaper and garden designer, that the woodland needed significant management. “Much of the woodland needed thinning,” says Alice. “Some areas considerably more than others, where the dense canopy was preventing light coming in, which is essential for encouraging diverse plant and wildlife.”

In 2019, Alice acquired a government grant and, with support from Sentry, had each wood professionally surveyed and a plan drawn up to enhance the health of all woodland as well as licenses approved to undertake the work.

The area that needed the most dramatic improvement was Northforeland, a pine wood situated next to the Norfolk Wildlife Trust’s Cley and Salthouse Marsh. For many years, herons and little egrets have nested in the tops of a few trees in Northforeland, so these were carefully fenced off by Alice before the contractors began.

Alice Atkinson in woodland
Photo by Andrew Bloomfield

Work was carried out in winter to minimise impact. The light immediately flooded in, most of all in Northforeland, where clearings and rides were revealed and where Alice would shortly discover an ideal environment for the rare spoonbill to nest.

The spoonbill is a large white heron-like species that stands at three feet tall and has a wingspan of four feet. It gets its name from its long bill, which has a flat spoon-shaped tip. It is believed that there are just eight breeding sites in the whole of England.

“Five weeks after the woodland work was completed, we noticed spoonbills carrying nesting material into Northforeland,” says Alice. “We had seen spoonbills visit the woodland previously, but they had never stayed. Maybe they nested coincidently, but the change to the woodland was dramatic, creating a completely different and healthier environment.”

What is a Spoonbill?

-The spoonbill’s scientific name is Platalea leucorodia

-It is part of the suborder of birds known as Ardei, which includes herons, storks and ibises

-Its UK conservation status is amber, which indicates that its status is of ‘moderate concern’

-It is protected by the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 (Source: RSPB)

Managing interest

Old Rectory Farm is located in a tourist hotspot, with the north Norfolk coast attracting a high volume of visitors. It has led Alice to install expensive fencing around Northforeland to ensure the spoonbills are left undisturbed. She says “We try to maintain private areas of the farm for wildlife and have public footpaths across the land as well.”

“Public access is important, but it is a disaster when people go into areas that are dedicated to wildlife, so should be left undisturbed – something we have to be increasingly aware of with such high visitor numbers.”

Alice Atkinson

Nearby Holkham Estate has an established colony of spoonbills at its nature reserve. In 2010, six pairs nested and produced 10 fledged juveniles. It put Holkham in the record books and at the forefront of a revival for a once-persecuted species. Nearly 500 chicks have now fledged from the reserve.

Andrew Bloomfield is the warden at Holkham National Nature Reserve and founder of the UK Spoonbill Working Group. “My understanding is that the thinning of the wood created openings in the canopy and small glades, which spoonbills need for accessibility. They now have easy access in and out of the wood and a good source of invertebrates and small fish for food in the nearby salt marshes. It’s an ideal location. It may be an unintended consequence of the woodland management, but it’s great to see the species thriving.”

Around a third of Old Rectory Farm is dedicated to wildlife with meadows, woodland and pasture. Alice and her family have always taken their role as custodians of the land seriously.

“We place a high priority on balancing nature and farming and have strived to do so for generations,” she says. “I am researching rainwater harvesting systems, continuing to plant trees where we can and extensively planting and replanting hedgerows, taking our hedge management seriously.”

On the success of increasing spoonbill populations in the UK, Andrew concluded: “It really does seem like the spoonbill is reaping the benefits of protection and better quality habitat - a definite success story.”