Ambitious plans to turn farmland the size of about 430 football pitches into the most accessible nature reserve in East Anglia became reality for the Suffolk Wildlife Trust as it created the Carlton Marshes Nature Reserve.
Nearly two years on since the opening of the visitor centre and nature reserve in 2021 by HRH The Princess Royal, the southern gateway to the Broads is flourishing and attracting around 100,000 visitors a year.
By being visionary and devoted to attracting wildlife back into the area, the Trust has transformed an area of former farmland just south of Lowestoft. It is now a restored and rewilded space where people can enjoy diverse landscapes, an array of birds, grazing cattle and ponies, and an astonishing 28 dragonfly species — the highest number found in a single site in Britain – while exploring many trails.
The Trust had long recognised the potential for such a reserve in the lower Waveney Valley. In late 2015, it negotiated a land purchase of £3.15 million, which would create an outstanding 1,000-acre landscape for wildlife — the largest purchase by far that the Trust had undertaken. This was also the biggest habitat restoration and wetland creation in the Broads National Park for a decade and they were ready to get started.
“We had the opportunity to buy the land and that triggered the question ‘how can we make this work for the town and make Carlton Marshes a nature destination?’,” says Chief Executive Christine Luxton. It was only made possible with funds, a lot of passion, perseverance – and inspirational collaboration.
In 2018, the National Lottery Heritage Fund awarded a grant of £4.2 million to the project. In addition to that, the Trust’s team raised £1 million through donations from local people and businesses, including £250,000 from New Anglia Local Enterprise Partnership’s Growing Places Fund, £100,000 from Essex & Suffolk Water and £1 million from legacy gifts.
How was the reserve created?
Suffolk Wildlife Trust began a long process of bringing life-giving water back to the once extensively drained fields. It is an engineering project whereby shallow pools and dykes are dug, earth banks are shaped and water levels are allowed to rise – and then nature moves in. “When pools are created, waders come. In the early stages, lapwings and redshanks arrived, attracted by the newly exposed mud,” says Christine, recalling a special moment when the reserve was still in its infancy.
She explains that the process of making space for water is an important element in the management of the nature reserve. “We have occasional surge tides and they require pressure release points. Our reserve can capture that water, so floods can overtop the river wall on to the reed beds rather than on to Oulton Broad.”
While the landscaping took place, the construction of the visitor centre began at the south side of the reserve. “As the building went up, people were able to follow its development. Some 4,000 people kindly donated to our appeal, raising £1 million. It was a massive community effort. It was not just our project; people have been actively part of it all the way through,” tells Christine, emphasising the fantastic local involvement.
“The LEP funding added to the Heritage funding and having the LEP’s support helped add weight to the economic side of it,” she says emphasising the importance of the project economically on top of its environmental, social, health and biodiversity purposes.
“During the pandemic, people were already able to walk here. It’s good for their health and the prosperity of the town. People come in for the day, others stay overnight and spent money locally. We’re developing a ‘Broads brand’ and are bringing in boat moorings.”
Creating an inspirational starting point for a visit to the Broads National Park with facilities that encourage more people to discover and explore the reserve was a clear objective for the visitor centre. The superstructure is built from sustainable timbers using Glulam and Cross Laminated Timber giving it a natural and inviting feel.
From a recent evaluation, it is clear that the reserve is much welcomed as a local visitor highlighted ‘having access to nature on our doorstep’ as a positive and added ‘we live in a built-up area and do not always have such great opportunities’.
Recognising that the project was ambitious – doubling the reserve in size – and that local people were proud of it, the team decided to hold a small opening event while navigating their way through changing social distancing rules. Christine recalls this time vividly, “it was tough on staff. We opened and then closed again. Not ideal, but we have put it behind us. It’s busy and thriving, and accessible for adults with disabilities.
“One of the rooms is a warm space and we have community groups such as knit and natter and toddler groups. It was very much our goal to have local people coming in.” Holiday- makers visit in the summer, and out-of-county nature lovers come in the spring and autumn.
“Now, it’s about maintaining it, grazing it, paths and infrastructure. And monitoring wildlife habitats! We’ve done more than planned and have added more surfaced paths and viewpoints.
“Come and visit, it will make you feel good; it’s an escape. Every time you come it will have changed with the seasons,” she says with warmth and enthusiasm that makes you want to plan your weekend already.
In dry and wet weather, the team aims for everyone to have a great experience and an unparalleled opportunity to get close-up to wildlife. And they have indeed achieved their goal and made Carlton Marshes with its landmark visitor centre the most accessible nature experience in East Anglia.
If you would like to read more about Carlton Marshes, visit https://www.suffolkwildlifetrust.org/