The byway from Dumpling Green on the outskirts of Dereham leads due east between large. mundane rape fields that are just erupting a sulphur yellow and ancient oak woodland filled with dense hazel coppice. The rape is devoid of life bar a few stubborn poppies but the woodland holds a noisy shower of small birds; recently fledged families of wrens and blue tits; blackcaps, song thrushes and bullfinches. A path runs south with yellowhammers and whitethroats in the hedgerow and on through a kissing gate into Badley Common; an empty waste of rushes and hawthorns where roe deer bark in the flat mist; a reed bunting and a song thrush sing their repetitive songs, as different as chalk and fine cheese; and the sun slowly rolls up over the boundary trees. There is little to suggest, apart from the absence of agriculture and the knee-high, dew-drenched vegetation covered in watery cobwebs and an abundance of beautifully striped, land snails, that this patch of wet ground in the valley of the River Tud is one of the country’s great wildlife sites.
Through a gate to the west and the land rises in a low whaleback; the ground is squelchy on the top of the mound, damp on the slopes and waterlogged on the valley floor; the vegetation is dominated throughout by rushes and grades into scrub. A small herd of cattle is stodging about in a patch of reeds. According to the Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) citation, the mounds are some of the finest tufa formations in Britain and provide the conditions on which alkaline fen, vegetation communities have developed. This is a National Vegetation Classification (NVC) M13 Schoenus nigricans – Juncus subnodulosus mire. Badley Moor SSSI is also designated as one part of the Norfolk Valley Fens Special Area of Conservation and hence valued at a European scale. A map of Grade A alkaline fens in the UK, of which Badley Moor is one, looks like the thinnest spattering of red ink; these habitats clearly don’t just pop up everywhere.
The tufa is created by the water from the chalk aquifer being forced up through the glacial till near the base of the valley; where the supersaturated water comes to the surface, it releases CO2 and deposits calcite; these are therefore known as valley head, springs. The base-rich water tickles down the slope all year round come rain or shine and it is this steady water flow that creates the perfect conditions for the alkaline fen vegetation to thrive.
The top of the tufa mound is a rush-dominated plateau with frequent ragged-robin Lychnis flos-cuculi, common cotton-grass Eriophorum angustifolium, yellow rattle Rhinanthus minor and marsh bedstraw Galium palustre. There is also quaking grass Briza media, a common constituent of dry, chalk grasslands.
On the slopes, the black-bog rush Schoenus nigricans takes over and here there are frequent southern marsh-orchids Dactylorhiza praetermissa and diminutive, common butterworts Pinguicula vulgaris. The last butterworts I found were on a wet cliff in the Rijeka Cijevna valley in Montenegro. Lower down the slope, there are more orchids but also the poisonous-looking, marsh lousewort Pedicularis palustris.
The birds are less diverse than the plants; a willow warbler sings from the top of a tall hawthorn and the female, giving her familiar ‘hweet’ call, sneaks down to a nest on the ground. A reed bunting flushes off a nest in the rushy mire.
On leaving the fen, there is a distinct feeling of having not taken it all in; of missing a chunk of species, but the overriding memory is that this small patch of wetland, like many botanical treasures is, from a distance, entirely nondescript. Fens do not sell themselves very well; their spectacular plants are actually quite small and so difficult to see and the splodgy vegetation difficult to access without wellies; added to which there is no signage or information helping the case. How Badley Moor has survived the centuries is a small, Norfolk miracle; most lowland fens are now drained and growing oilseed rape or whatever, perhaps being common land has helped.