Four different species of deer are commonly seen around the forest – red, fallow, roe and muntjac. The smallest ones – muntjac – are often seen within the village, on the green or in people’s gardens where they enjoy eating plants and flowers. We’re experimenting with leaving out carrots for our resident deer, in the hope that he won’t then bother stripping the leaves off our shrubs. But we suspect that he’ll simply spend more time in our garden.
Rabbits are becoming more common on the avenues leading in to Santon Downham, and we suspect that it won’t be too long before they are in our gardens.
There were some red squirrels being introduced into the forest, but we don’t know if they are still around, and certainly they can’t be seen in the village – we do get our fair share of grey ones.
There are plenty of bats around in the forest, of a variety of species.
West Stow Anglo Saxon Village sometimes have wildlife events including batwatching and moth nights.
Similarly there are various events run throughout the year including deer safaris run by Forrest Enterprises (the Forrestry Commission) from their High Lodge visitors centre nearby
The bird life of any area is largely determined by the habitats available. The first impression of Santon Downham and its immediate surroundings is that of a small village in the middle of forestry plantations. To some extent, this is true, but a quick walk around soon reveals more than just wall-to-wall conifers. Dense, blanket plantations of conifers do not offer much for wildlife, but Thetford Forest has been sympathetically managed for many decades and now provides a rich variety of habitats, that in turn, supports a surprising number of bird species.
Santon Downham is situated in a region known as Breckland. This term, breckland, is also used to describe the habitat, being primarily sandy heathland, an important, but much-threatened habitat. One fifth of Breckland has now been covered with forest. In the 1920s, planting of confers began, to produce what we now know as Thetford Forest. This replaced the open, desolate heaths with tree cover.
The forest is a standing crop, and grows from seedlings to large trees which are then harvested at maturity. This means that even the plantations are ever changing. There are still parts of the forest that have been densely planted with confers, offering little to birds other than cover and limited food. Coal Tits, Chaffinches and maybe Goldcrests can be found in such areas, together with Song Thrushes, Turtle Doves and Golden Pheasant. The last example, Golden Pheasant, has declined in numbers, and is an introduced and naturalised breeding bird. Much of the tree planting has been more open, allowing limited under-storey vegetation. These areas support a wider range of birds that utilise the trees for food, cover and nest-sites. Here, as well as the species already mentioned, we may find Great Tits, Blue Tits, Wrens, Robins and some more specialised forest birds such as Crossbills, Siskins, Tawny Owls, Redstarts, Long-eared Owls and Goshawk.
Most blocks of trees are more than just one or two species of conifer. Planting has aimed to provide variety that is visually more pleasing as well as providing a wider range of tree species. So most areas these days have bands of deciduous trees along the edge of the pine blocks, or moderate groups in corners of the plantations. Oak has been widely used in this planting and together with silver birch, sweet chestnut and some beech, provides new sources of food and nest sites for a wider range of species of birds. Oak trees support a huge number of insects on their developing leaves and fruits, and the caterpillar crop is of great importance to many bird species. The presence of these deciduous trees encourages the presence of woodpeckers, Nuthatches, Treecreepers and summer visitors such as Willow Warblers and Chiffchaffs. Ground nesting Woodcocks are also present, but usually only seen flying at dusk.
As the pine trees mature, they are cropped. At present, the forest is well into its first harvest. When the trees are removed, clearings are produced which creates a very important new, but transitional habitat. Such areas have been treated in one of several ways during forest operations, each providing a subtly different range of conditions for invading plants. Areas may be scraped clean, stumps left in situ, or piled into long ridges. Such areas are re-planted very quickly, although throughout the forest, small cleared areas have been left, specifically for wildlife. A variety of herbaceous plants soon colonises such areas providing food from seeds or associated insects. This in turn attracts a different range of birds, either foraging for food or nesting on the ground. Yellowhammers can be found in such areas, calling out their characteristic chant of “a little bit of bread and no cheeeeeese” and Skylark display and breed. Summer visiting Tree Pipits may be found around the edge of such clearings, provided there are some ‘singing posts’ in the form of small trees present.
These new clearings have proved very important in particular for two once-declining species, Woodlarks and Nightjars, both of which move rapidly into newly cleared areas to nest on the ground among the newly planted trees. Populations of both species are now increasing in the Thetford Forest area.
Forest Habitats Scattered throughout the forest and along the roads, tracks and railway lines are patches of other habitat, where a wider variety of shrubs and small trees such as gorse, broom, elder and hawthorn may be found. In other areas, these patches may have only very low vegetation, often together with heather (ling). This diversifies the forest habitats considerably and a wide range of birds may be found in such areas. Chaffinches, Dunnocks, Blackbirds and many others may be encountered in this patchy habitat. Even Stonechats have returned to occupy a few heath-like areas.
Rivers and Wet Areas
The forest is bisected by the river, the Little Ouse. As well as the river itself, this produces a marked change in the nearby landscape and vegetation, all good for some bird species. The river and its banks are home to Kingfishers, often seen only as a flashing blue jewel flying past. Grey Wagtails may be found near the various bridges, Swans, Canada Geese, Coots and Moorhens feed on the river and nest on the banks.
There are a few open ponds between the river and the railway line, west of the village. These and the associated wet reed and sedge areas support ducks such as Teal and other birds such as Water Rail.
Alongside the river, there is a variety of wet habitats, many falling within the Forest Reserve, which flanks the river and is managed for its wildlife. Bands of poplars, marshy ground, areas of reedbed, alder trees and open water are all present. Willow Tits can be found in the aging poplars together with all three species of woodpecker, Green, Great Spotted and Lesser Spotted. There is limited understorey shrub growth in these areas, but there is usually a considerable amount of annual plants. These provide nesting cover for numerous ground nesting birds, including many summer visiting warblers such as Whitethroats and Garden Warblers. In scrubby areas, the unmistakable call of the Nightingale can be heard, while Grasshopper Warblers sound like revolving fishing reels in marshy areas.
Just north of the river and west of the road bridge in Santon Downham, excessive growth of poplars and neglect of some field areas had resulted in deterioration of existing habitats. Recently, a large area has had the poplars removed and the water table raised to produce a patch of reedbed. Cattle have been put on the field area to graze down the rough grass and allow a more diverse range of plants to move in. Both of these will bring birds back to this immediate area, including Reed and Sedge Warbler and possibly breeding waders.
House and Garden
There are then, other easily overlooked but important habitats for birds in and around the village. The houses and their gardens provide food, shelter and nest sites for a range of species. A garden pond can provide drinking water, which will attract many birds, especially Crossbills if you are lucky. A well-stocked pond can also serve to supplement the diet of Herons (perhaps not considered so lucky by the owners!). Some of the gardens have preserved older trees, including some of the cherry trees from the Downham Estate. These will produce ripening cherry flesh for thrushes and Blackbirds, but more excitingly, the stones for Hawfinches, birds that are well-adapted to breaking into these seeds with their oversized bills.
Many residents put out food to attract birds to their gardens. Santon Downham is an ideal place to do this, as the woodland on the doorstep is a huge reservoir of birds. Roving flocks will soon find food in feeders, be it mixed seed, sunflower seed or peanuts, as well as being attracted to other foods thrown out for them. This large density of garden birds in turn attracts Sparrowhawks. This species was close to extinction in the 1950s in many parts of the country as a result of the widespread use of certain pesticides. The population has largely recovered and readily passes through gardens in search of prey.
The houses themselves provide several species with roost and nest sites. Each year, summer-visiting House Martins nest under the eaves of old and new properties in the village. Older houses, with access to soffit space above the eves, or older style roof tiles may have roosting and nesting Starlings taking up occupancy, or more excitingly, Swifts. Swifts are fairly site faithful, and will return year after year. As properties are modernised and tidied up, such nest sites gradually disappear.
Keep you ears and eyes alert and you never know what birds you might see.:-
- Red-backed Shrike
This beautiful member of the shrikes, sometimes called ‘butcher birds’ because of their habit of using thorns on shrubs to hang their prey (large insects, small reptiles and mammals) is one of the sad stories of Santon Downham. During the breeding season, there used to be numerous pairs in and around the area, occupying any habitat where there was a scattering of thorny bushes.
The national population had been declining for over a century, and was about 300 pairs by the early 1950s. Santon Downham was still a place to visit to ensure seeing one. By the early 1970s, this population had fallen to 50 pairs and the last pair in the UK bred at St Helen’s picnic site in 1988. A loan male returned in 1989 and called forlornly for a mate, without success. Since then, there have been one or two pairs returned to the UK, but not to our region. But keep your eyes open, the habitat is still there.
This delightful, small finch is a marked contrast to the Red-backed Shrike, showing a tremendous expansion in breeding areas and numbers of birds.
The bill of this green, yellow and black bird is very sharp and narrow for a finch, well adapted for removing pine seeds from cones. It is the increase in mature forest that has led to the spread and increase in numbers of breeding birds.
During the breeding season, they can be fairly difficult to see, but it is during the winter that they become very apparent. There are two reasons for this. Firstly, the UK breeding population is enhanced by an influx of birds from the continent, moving to warmer climes during the colder season. Even UK birds move southwards, and our own local populations are enlarged by birds from northern England and Scotland. At this time of year, the birds move around in large feeding flocks and are very noticeable, if only from their ‘buzzy’ calls. As well as pine seeds, they will be found feeding on silver birch and alder seeds. The second reason for their being easy to see in winter is that in the early 1960s, they discovered peanuts hung out for birds in gardens. This has since become an important food for them when natural foods are scarce. They can be attracted to gardens very easily throughout the winter months by putting out some peanuts, especially in one of the red, plastic mesh bags. By early March, the birds are getting ready to return to their breeding grounds in the UK or on the continent, and need high energy foods for the journey. Fat-rich peanuts act as an excellent supplement, and large numbers of birds move through garden areas, feeding up. The peak in numbers in gardens is usually during the second half of March, but if there is plenty of natural food, numbers requiring the supplementary diet will be less. It is always difficult to tell how many birds may be using your garden as a food source, as individuals look the same. Studies with ringed birds has shown the several hundred different Siskins may be using the average garden in Santon Downham during the last two weeks of March, even though there may only be two to three at any one time.
Because we have our own breeding population in the forest, Siskins can be seen every month of the year.
Crossbills are robust finches whose population goes rapidly up and down according to how much food is available in the form of pine cones. In a good cropping year, numbers are enhanced by wanderers from the continent.
Considering that this finch is one of our larger ones, and that the male is a bright orange-red and the female yellow-green, they are surprisingly difficult to see in the forest, as much time is spent high in the canopy. Flocks can frequently be seen flying over at moderate heights, but unless you are familiar with their call, they will go unnoticed. One way of improving your chances is to have a garden pond with a shelving end and small branches to encourage perching that will bring in flocks to drink.
The name Crossbill is a literal description. The upper and lower mandible cross at the tip, an adaptation for removing conifer seeds from cones, at which they are the experts. As this is almost their only food source, they are dependent on mature conifers and good crops of cones.
They are present all year, but the fluctuating population and the difficulty in seeing them means they are often overlooked.
- NightjarThis has to be one of the more exciting birds of our area as well as being one of the species to benefit from the forest management. Nightjars are summer visitors, arriving in May to breed. They occupy forest clearings, where they nest on the ground, making only a shallow depression for their eggs. As soon as they return from their wintering grounds to the south, the males will establish territory. As dusk falls, they start their territorial churring, a fascinating noise that is very un-birdlike. This is usually issued from a ‘singing post’, often a tall tree on the edge of their territory, and the sound made more eerie as the bird twists its head slowly from side to side.
All activity takes place during the evening and night, the birds remaining motionless on the ground during the hours of daylight, relying on their cryptic colouration to render them undetectable. They feed on moths and other flying insects, catching them in their large gaping mouths. As a male defends its territory, it will fly around a series of singing posts, interrupting its churring with a strange whistle and some wing clapping.Because of their behaviour, most people are probably completely unaware of the presence of Nightjars. They return each year, to go through the whole breeding cycle, and then fly back to warmer climes over the winter period. Dog-walkers probably pass within a few metres of day-roosting birds, without noticing them.The preferred habitat of Nightjars has been open heathland, a much-threatened habitat. As the habitat disappeared, this species declined markedly in numbers. Then, as felling started in coniferous forests such as Thetford, new and suitable clearings appeared. When such areas are re-planted, Nightjars will continue to breed amongst the growing trees provided the gaps between remain clear enough for take-off. Nightjars move in to newly cleared areas very quickly, setting up territory during the first breeding season that such areas appear.The Thetford Forest population of Nightjars continues to increase and is very healty.
This is another of the region’s special birds. Woodlarks were never common in the UK, but their numbers decreased during the 20th century to as few as 100 pairs in the early 1960s. In the 1970s, birdwatchers used to come to Thetford Forest area specifically to see this diminutive, brown bird, where it was fairly easily found.
Even before spring is in the air, Woodlarks begin their display, rising high in the air above clearings, issuing a beautiful series of fluty descending phrases, seemingly going on for ever as they drift higher and higher. The rest of their life is spent without drawing attention to themselves, moving around a lot on the ground, where they also build their nests.
Like the Nightjar, Woodlarks have taken to the habitat produced by tree felling in the forest. They quickly colonise newly cleared areas and are soon present at densities greater than that of Nightjars. Ron Hoblyn, who used to work for the Forestry Commission, now Forest Enterprise, has studied Woodlarks for many years and continues to do so. He has seen the rise in population of Woodlarks, as well as having been instrumental in some on the conservation practices that have helped this special bird. In 2000, there were over 50 pairs in and around Santon Downham alone.
This is another species that is well represented in and around Santon Downham, but easily overlooked because of its behaviour. It is in fact a representative of the group of birds called waders, most of which will be found on coasts and estuaries, feeding on invertebrates in the mud. The Woodcock is an exception, being only found on the coast or near estuaries when they migrate – and then it is usually continental birds flying to the UK for winter, as our own population is resident throughout the year.
Woodcocks breed and feed in woodland, not in clearings. They prefer moist, not too dense woodlands, the tree composition being of lesser importance. Being mainly crepuscular (active at dusk) and incredibly well camouflaged it is unlikely that you will come across them on the ground during the day. They have been a ‘game’ bird for centuries, and old maps show that the small patch of woodland behind and downhill from the village hall was called Woodcock Covert, reflecting its use for breeding birds to shoot on the old estate.
If they are extremely difficult to see on the ground or during the day, they can be easily seen when they fly in the late evening. Their display involves a territorial flight, referred to as roding, around a large area, often over clearings, when their peculiar grunt and whistle call draws attention to their presence. They flap slowly around a circuit on broad, rounded wings, with their long bills pointing down at an angle. Any time from early spring through to late summer can reveal roding birds, but still, clear evenings in May, June and July are best. Just occasionally, you might see one in an unusual situation. I have seen them sitting on the road near the village green on more than one occasion.
Many thanks to Ron Hoblyn for commenting on and adding to this manuscript. (Ron has lived in the village for 30 years – his seen and heard bird list from his garden is 133!)
The region has abundent plant life as can be seen in the plant survey carried out by Nicholas Gibbons, Conservation Officer for Forestry Commission and Breckland Officer for English Nature
Latin Names Translated Into English By Veronica Moran
Page numbers quoted relate to The Guide to the Wild Flowers Of Britain – Readers Digest
|Annual Meadow Grass
|Bird’s Foot Trefoil
|Broad Leafed Dock
|Crested Dog’s Tail
|False Oat Grass
|Hare’s Foot Clover
|Lesser Yellow Trefoil
|Perennial Rye Grass
|Capsella Bursa Pastoris
|Smooth Hawks Beard
|Sweet Vernal Grass
|THYME LEAFED SANDWORT