Rex Whitta MBE
Date of birth: 24.3 1928. Place of birth: Cambridge.
He came to live in Brandon at a very early age, attended Brandon school and enjoyed his time there. When he left school at fourteen, he went to work at Calders, the timber merchant on the Weeting Road. Later he got the job with the American forces at the Elveden Camp. From there he joined the army when he was eighteen in 1945. After leaving the army in 1948 he started work with the Forestry Commission at the old central Brandon depot, where they used to convert the trees into pit props.
IN 1960 Rex had the opportunity to become a Deer Warden. He was keen to do this, because he was always interested in birds, bird watching, and animals in the forest long before he was offered the job. The trouble was that whilst he was at the depot, he earned quite good money doing piecework: between £12 & £15 a week, he found out that wages for the job offered was about £3.10shillings! (£3.50 now)
Rex was very glad that Betty, his wife, gave him her full support, in spite of the fact that it was a seven days a week job, long and uncertain hours and financial sacrifices. They both agreed that it was better for Rex to do something he really enjoyed; Betty decided to take a part time job. Rex was often out all night or early in the morning, often late for meals.
When Rex first started, there were two areas to supervise. The northern part was his territory. The job entailed censes work, trying to count all the deer in the forest. He had to inspect the new planting areas for damage, and assess the number of deer that would have to be culled to control the numbers in order to maintain the quality of the stock, to prevent disease, and protect the crops.
Rex says: "We had 4 species of deer in the forest, the big magnificent Red Deer,(probably some of the best wild deer there are in the country)we had Fallow Deer, to the south of the forest towards Bury St. Edmunds, the Roe Deer which were by far the largest number, on both sides of the forest and the Muntjac that started to creep in".
Rex was one of the key figures in the monitoring programmes to determine the movement of the deer, specially the Roe. In order to help with control work involved a catch up project that was carried out by Rex, the Forestry Research Team from Alice Holt and volunteers. The Santon Beat was selected, the area near Santon Downham village. The deer were weighed, blood samples taken and collars fitted. Some were radio collars others were fitted with different coloured collars. After several days, Rex and his team would try to locate these animals. The furthest a deer had roamed from the catch up site was four miles.
Rex recognised the importance of involving the public from the outset, and this was one of the key element to insure that volunteers were recruited to make all the projects successful.
As far as Rex is aware, the Red deer have always been in this area (escapees from various hunts that existed here) The Munjac Deer are thought to have bred from escapees from Woburn Abbey. During the World Wars the fences became dilapidated, and the deer escaped and spread. The Roe Deer thought to have been imported by Col. Macanzie's brother when he occupied Downham Hall. He imported 6 pairs from Wittenberg in Germany and released them in the wood known as Risbeth Wood up behind the old leper house at Thetford. The fallow deer escaped from various southern estates.
The ideal conditions in the forest caused a rapid population increase. This necessitated a severe culling programme. Rex was responsible for this. Later, the number of staff was increased to six. In about 1959, a club called St.Hubert's became involved in the culling and control of the deer herds. Their membership and methods are very carefully monitored, maintaining high standards. They were responsible for an area of about 7or 8 thousand acres on the northern side of the forest.
Prior to the employment of rangers, there were about 18 warreners. Their sole job was to control the rabbits and hares. They were gradually retired and replaced by rangers who took on their jobs as well.
The damage done by deer to the young trees is quite different to that done by rabbits and hares. At first, deer were often blamed for damage done by rabbits and hares until Rex was able to point out the difference. Rabbits and hares tend to eat the growing shoot whereas the deer damaged trees by bending and breaking the plant in a jagged manner.
Rex says that the other project he was involved with was with the native Red Squirrel, which inhabited the whole of the forest. When he first started, the Greys hadn't even put in an appearance. A few inhabited the outskirts of the forest in the hard wood area. Later there was concern that the Greys were starting to come into the forest. Unfortunately the Red Squirrel suffered with a viral infection at that time which decimated the population tremendously. This calamity coincided with the increase in the number of Greys, and the Reds never recovered from that time. People say that Red and Grey squirrels fight; but this is only true when there is a shortage of food. The Grey squirrel forages for food and adapts to different conditions quite easily, the Red Squirrel doesn't. This is a disadvantage against its survival.
The Forestry Commission decided to try and conserve the Red Squirrel in Thetford Forest. Rex and his team had to do a survey. Two areas were selected for this. High Lodge and Red Neck Forest that is between Brandon and Thetford.
In order to conduct the survey volunteers were asked to come once a year to help with the work. At one time there were as many as 150 people coming early on a Saturday morning. The volunteers were given a breakfast of venison sausages, tea, coffee or any other beverage of their choice. This encouraged them to come back each year! They were split up into groups. Each group was led under the direction of a Ranger, a Forester, or somebody from one of the Wildlife Societies. Each group was allocated four or five compartments. They walked through and looked for squirrel drays, and any damage. They would record all this and any cones that were on the ground were counted and recorded onto data sheets. All the information collected would go to Rex at the Santon Downham Office.
The survey used to take about three or four hours. Every thing that was seen in the way of animals, or birds was also recorded. The survey started in about 1975, and continued for fifteen years. The largest number of Red Squirrels counted on a single morning was twenty-one. When Rex retired, some of the volunteers who helped him and the team were from the original groups. During this time the number of the Red squirrels continued to decline. Around the survey area it became necessary to control the growth of the Grey Squirrel population.
As time went on, the Nature Conservancy became involved with the project, and it was decided to reserve an area solely for Red Squirrels. This became too much for the Commission to do, so that the Nature Conservancy set up a project whereby they employed a student Mr. John Girton to do all the research work at Southampton University whilst the volunteers and Forestry Commission continued with surveying.
Since Rex's retirement, several students have continued the project. A breeding programme in two pens over an acre in area with a high fence to keep the squirrels safe and all the necessary elements are provided. When the squirrels are able to survive, they are released into the surrounding forest.
Bird protection was another of Rex's tasks. Mr. Ron Hoblin, who was the Forester at the time, was also involved in this project with the RSPB. The Woodlark, Stone Curlews, Goshawks and Nightjars were the main bird under protection. A student was researching the Nightjars and Woodlark. Rex says that the Goshawk just appeared. It is believed to have been released by someone possibly because they wanted it to breed, so that they could milk the nest. Although some of the nests were robbed, the majority of them were protected. The task of protecting the birds was a long and tiring one, needing constant vigilance and a dedicated team of volunteers including members of the RSPB.
The alarm system terminated at Rex's house, so that he could be called out at any time of night or day. The teams were constantly changing with each team doing four to five hours. Betty, Rex's wife, bore all the upheaval with good humour, and they were all rewarded with the survival of the chicks to adulthood, after about three months of patience and perseverance.
Another of the Forestry Conservation projects was the Bat Project started in the 1970's. Rex says that John Goldsmith was "a big mover in this". He worked at Norwich Museum and was associated with the Norfolk Nature Society. He suggested that bat boxes could be put up to encourage them to come into the forest. In this way the bats species, diet and their beneficial effects could be studied. Within several years of the project starting, six hundred boxes were made and put up in various locations, Red neck, High Lodge, Brandon Park and the northern side of the River Ouse.
Once again recruited volunteers willingly monitored the boxes four times a year, early Spring, Summer, Autumn and late Autumn. Four species of bats were recorded: Common long Eared, Pipistrelle, Natterer's and the largest was the Noctule bat. Rex says it was quite amazing how the bats used to get into the boxes. There was a tiny quarter of an inch slit underneath the box where they could get in. The board was serrated so that they could grip when they landed on the box and make their way in. The largest number of bat recorded in one box was 65 Common Long Eared Bat. One bat had been caught and recorded 18 times! People had to have a special licence from the Nature Conservancy to handle the bats. They are weighed, measured and numbered with a little tag. The project has been on going for over 20 years in which time quite a record has been built up about their breeding, life span, areas they inhabit and their benefit to the forest. Some of the original volunteers are still involved with the survey.
Rex says that one of the problems that occurred when people know that you are involved with deer is that people pick up supposedly orphaned animals and very often during the early days we used to have people knock on the door sometime in May or June. They would be standing there with little Roe fauns. Although we tried to explain to people that they mustn't pick them up, they still do it because they think they are doing good and saving the life of a young faun. In fact they were causing a lot more problems for Rex as the faun would have to be hand reared, usually by Betty his wife. The little creatures were so small they needed feeding every two hours with baby food. Betty successfully reared three deer. The first one was called Bambi, who used to go out with Rex on the truck and followed him like a dog. He liked to go out for a walk like a dog on a lead. Bambi sometimes ate the flowers and the dog would follow suit. Rex says that they learned a lot from the deer, as it seemed to respond instinctively to the weather conditions. When the deer were about three months old there were usually taken to live in wild life parks.
Over the years Rex has won many awards for his work. One of the most important was when on March 21st. 1989 he went to Buckingham Palace with Betty his wife and Jenny his daughter to receive the MBE, in The Queen's New Years honours list. Rex is modest about these awards. He says that a lot of people help you and you are very lucky to be selected. The experience was an awe-inspiring occasion and one that the whole family enjoyed.
Rex's other awards include the Courtier Trophy for outstanding service to wildlife management by Sparsholt College, Hampshire. The Balfour-Browne trophy for his outstanding work in managing the forest's deer herds.
Interview and transcript by Veronica Moran 2000
A Forest Heath District Council (Suffolk) Project supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund as part of the Millennium Festival ©2000 Designed by ArtAtac