Harriers and Harnsers


Walking along the banks of the only man-made canal in Norfolk, the redundant Dilham Canal, resembled a walk through a petrified forest. Whatever calamity had befallen the trees here was beyond my limited arboreal knowledge. Dutch Elm disease? The legions of half-trees, many now devoid of bark and ravaged by woodpecker drillings looked as though a great godly scythe had been played across the dead timbers. Among a stand of these grey ghosts a single crow perched, watching my passing.


High overhead a pair of buzzards wheeled against the blue sky, mere dots courting atop the spring thermals. A ‘cronk’ turned my head and I followed the drift of huge spread wings as ‘Ole Frank’ soared down among the marsh grasses. A pterodactyl in a prehistoric landscape of bogland, dyke and grazing marsh. Britain’s largest avian predator, the heron, thrives on the Anglian marshes with their rich supply of frogs, grass snakes, voles and small fish.

The heron fascinates me and I have witnessed many interesting incidents featuring the harnser, as it’s known locally. I once photographed a battle between a hen pheasant and a heron as the stabbing sword of a beak picked off a brood of pheasant poults and gulped them down like a snake eating mice. The hen game-bird fought majestically to protect her chicks and even when the heron snatched up the last and took flight, she followed the giant harrowing it until it was out of sight. Ironically, I watched the same heron fall foul of a fox attack later year,in the winter, which left it with a broken wing. Circumstances wouldn’t let me intervene and I left it at dusk, crippled and alive across the river, lying in a meadow. When I returned out of curiosity next morning, the bird had been torn to pieces. Such is the power of natures karma, though I suspect it was the fox, not the hen pheasant, that finished it.

I stopped on the Tonnage Bridge, where the old wherries were weighed after coming down the six locks (long since abandoned, I and my family attempted to get canoes up the navigation ten years ago and only got has far as the first lock). Taking lunch I looked over the bridge parapet to see a long-tailed tit staring back at me just two feet away on a willow frond. A beautiful, minuscule bird and quite the opposite of the heron. Supping at my hot soup I glimpsed movement back out on the marsh I had just crossed. I put down my flask hastily and picked up my camera. Though distant, I delighted at watching the Lord of the Fen glide across the reeds and sedges, hunting for voles and snakes. That distinctive mustard face and yellow legs distinguishing Marsh Harrier from Common Buzzard. I wished I wasn’t so close to the cottages that border the bridge for I would have called it closer with my predator squeaker, for better images. Nonetheless, it was pleasing to see a harrier this far North in the county.

As I turned for home along the banks of the canal, a pre-Victorian enterprise channeled from the head of the River Ant, I tried to visualise the wherries carrying their goods through these meadows and fens but I struggled. The waterway is so narrow and clogged with weed or overhung with trees that it has lost it’s glory completely. Or has it? A nearby ‘plop’ in the water spoke loudly of water vole and a flash of azure feather along the stream reminded me that I photographed my first kingfisher along this canal. Perhaps now, created by man but donated to wildlife, it is at it’s grandest?

©Ian Barnett. Wildscribbler. March 2015

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