Thursday 22 November 2012

The Last Norfolk Coypu.

The rain is driving across the Norfolk marshes on the leading edge of a strong "North Easterly", signalling the arrival of winter.   These cold wet days mean Filming opportunities become few and far between.   While we wait for the brittle light that comes with the winter sun we decide to empty our loft of items that have been stored there and forgotten.  We sift through the treasures that once seemed so valuable and important to us  - it is strange how they have gradually transformed themselves from treasure into junk in the darkness of the loft. 

Among the growing piles of “Tip” or “Charity shop” I find a little book that belonged to my father.  “As I was a-sayin” by Jonathan Mardle. (Mardle is Norfolk for gossip
Jonathan Mardle was the pen name of Eric Fowler a journalist on the local newspaper, the “Eastern Daily Press” (known locally as The Norfolk News), he wrote about all things Norfolk.   The little book was printed in 1950, marked seven and sixpence, and is a collection of Eric Fowler’s articles describing his travels around post war Norfolk.  He paints fascinating word pictures about the Broads of a time when they were vastly different than they are today.

Two articles were of particular interest to me – the first, his trip on the freshly restored “Albion” in January, 1950, carrying cargo for the newly formed  Norfolk Wherry Trust.   Laden with forty tons of sand, gravel and cement out of Norwich, bound for Berney Arms and crewed by Jack Cates and his Brother George.

The second article that took my eye was his visit to “Wheatfen”, home of Norfolk naturalist (the late) Edward (Ted) Ellis.  He describes a colony of Coypu living in the sanctuary of “Wheatfen” safe from the trappers.  Every Coypu had a price on its head, or to be more precise, a price on its tail.   “Ted” Ellis considered the Coypu gentle creatures that lived off waterside vegetation, and he believed that Coypu actually helped to keep the channels clear.  I suspect Ted had never harmed a living creature in his entire life, based on the times I have met and spoken with him.
Coypu or Nutria (Photo courtesy of Alpsdak)
 The Coypu had few allies and in the end it was the trappers who prevailed and by 1989 the Coypu had been eradicated from Norfolk’s waterways.   The rise and fall of Norfolk’s Coypu population is quite a sad story.   Coypu also known as Swamp Beaver or Nutria were imported from South America to the fur farms of Broadland in the 1920’s.  They were bred in captivity for the soft layer of waterproof fur under their coarse outer coat.  Inevitably some of them escaped into the yare valley which suited them perfectly.   Rivers, marshland and fields full of crops were ideal for the Coypu, it is no wonder that they thrived there. 

Norfolk’s waterways were a long way from Chile from where the Coypu originated. They were strange looking animals with large orange incisor teeth poking out of their white muzzles.  Their ears and eyes were set high on their head to allow good vision and hearing while swimming.  The females had nipples high on their flanks to allow them to suckle their young while travelling through the water, propelled by a pair of powerful, webbed hind feet.
Living in the wild they had a span of about three years providing they could stay clear of the trappers.   A female Coypu was sexually mature at about four months and could have up to three litters a year.  Baby Coypu were born with their eyes open and a full coat of fur, they could be feeding on vegetation within a few hours of being born.  The adults consumed one quarter of their body weight every day eating Sedge, Reed, Water Lillies and other waterside plants. 
Photo courtesy of Alpsdak
 In the sixties I was working on a pumping station on Cantley marshes with a gang of Irish contractors.  One of them took his lodging allowance to the local pub and he did not stagger out until he had spent the lot.
As he had no money for his lodgings he slept alone, in the cement shed, on the marsh.
During the night, amidst the popping Marsh gas and the rising mist he saw a rat which he claimed was "bigger than a cat".   Next morning when we turned up for work he asked me if all Norfolk rats were that big – what he had seen was a Coypu.  He left Norfolk at the end of the job believing that our county hosted the largest breed of rats in the civilised world.

Coypu are quite large rodents, adults could weigh up to twenty two pounds and could reach two feet in length with an additional twelve inches of tail.  It was their burrowing activities that brought about  their eventual eradication.  They created networks of tunnels in the river banks which filled with water and became prone to caving in, this increased the risk of flooding.
Coypu are large rodents (Photo courtesy of Schieber)

Nor were the Coypu a friend of the farmers.  When waterside vegetation became less plentiful the Coypu moved into the fields of sugar beet.  They would work along the rows taking a bite or two from each plant leaving a trail of worthless crops in their wake. 
So the death sentence was passed on all Coypu, “five bob a tail” was the bounty and by 1989 trappers had wiped out the Coypu in Norfolk. 
Trappers Harvest (Photo courtesy of US Government)

Coming from a tropical climate Coypu were susceptible to frostbite in their tails during the hard winters.  This lead to infection and eventual death, but the demise of the largest numbers of Norfolk Coypu was due to the trappers not natural causes.  The trappers used square, wire cage traps to catch the Coypu, then cut off the animal’s tail to collect the bounty.

I would like to believe that somewhere in the more remote parts of Broadland there just might be a small group of fugitive Coypu hiding out, living up to their outlaw status.

French Coypu  (Photo courtesy Tangopaso)

Authors footnote
1. Coypu are quite common in Europe and America

2. "As I Was A-sayin" by Jonathan Mardle is still available but no longer at 7/6d.

Wednesday 7 November 2012

The End Of Briggate Mill.

The remains of the old mill at Briggate have now faded into history and another small chunk of Norfolk heritage has been lost.  A variety of plans to convert and use the mill were put forward over the years but sadly none of them came to fruition and no reprieve for Briggate mill was forthcoming.   On October 30th this year the granary was demolished.

The End For Briggate Mill
Corn was first ground at Briggate mill in 1793, the early mill was powered by a breast shot water wheel (the wheel was removed in 1943). 
In it's two-hundred year history the mill was modified and altered many times, the original granary was destroyed by fire in 1890 and was replaced by the building which was recently demolished.  In the same year steam became the motive power which was eventually superseded by electricity.
Production ceased in 1969 and the mill changed hands a few times until it was purchased for redevelopment in 1975.   Six months after the purchase Briggate mill was destroyed by a suspicious fire.

As recently as 1983 it was proposed to redevelop the mill to generate electricity and produce paper.  But the project never got beyond the planning stage. 

Since the new millennium the mill site has survived an an attempted "land grab" and it has also been rejected as the site for a village green.   Conversion to a village green would have been a fitting memorial for the old mill instead of simply reducing it to rubble.

Falling Masonry
An early morning phone call on the 30th of October (2012) tipped me off that the old granary was being demolished.  This was confirmed on the local radio station by sounds of falling masonry.   My toast was abandoned in the toaster and a mug of tea was left steaming on the kitchen table.  Cameras and equipment were loaded in a matter of minutes and I was on my way to Briggate.  Since following the activities of the North Walsham and Dilham Canal Trust, Briggate mill has formed an imposing  backdrop to that section of the canal.  To watch it being slowly erased from the landscape in the morning mist was quite a sad spectacle.  The entire sorry episode was captured on film.

The End Of The Granary
These type of events need to be viewed with perspective - and to do this it is necessary to remove the "rose tinted" spectacles.  The granary building had become, without doubt, an unsafe structure and needed some urgent attention.  The granary was, in fact, only built in 1890 after the original granary was burned down.  A mere one-hundred-and-twenty years, which is not a great age for a building.  It was, however, a link to the ruins of the original mill, parts of which still survive - for the moment.

To learn more about the very colourful and intriguing history of Briggate mill visit the excellent "Norfolk Mills" site.