after the two dry winters we have had, Bale wood has been unusually dry. it is in fact a in a tiny valley, holding small streams and ditches fed by springs of water emerging from the last little bit of the Cromer Holt ridge – a glacial moraine mostly consisting of gravels and sands, with odd seams of chalky, or blue-grey, clay. the surrounding fields have drains and ditches feeding into the watercourse, which joins the river Stiffkey in Warham.
this pond was dry in September, even at the end of the wettest summer in most people’s memory, but sopping wet November and December have filled it up again.
the wood is a special secret place, used for pheasant shooting. every winter I see woodcock fly up out of its ditches, and it hides red and roe deer in the daytime. today I found a single tine from a cast red deer antler in the wet grass of the set-aside near the bottom of Cakes Lane. I have seen a tawny owl in this tree, being mobbed by small birds. hares use the wood as a refuge and its floor is covered with violets in the spring.
water is near the surface everywhere now.
the solitary beech tree, matriarch of the wood, keeping her leaf-covered clearing dry.
here the ditch becomes more like a stream, it runs under a small culvert. the water is still clear; two houses have their septic tank overflow into this, but they both have good modern systems that return clean water.
but at the bottom of Cakes Lane the case is different. the main flow of this stream is from the high watershed above Hindringham, and it comes around the west side of Bale wood, picking up water from field drains. you can see the silt making it yellow, which must have come off fields in the heavy rain we have been having. some of this will be dropped by the water anywhere it is held up in pools or where the stream is dammed by fallen trees or branches.
another branch of this system starts above Manor Farm in Bale, where there used to be medieval fish ponds and moats. Bale gets its name from the spring that feeds this little stream – it is a corruption of the name Bathleigh, which is a saxon name meaning a spring in a clearing. it runs a short way as a ditch between fields and then becomes a tiny stream through permanent pasture, used for sheep, all the way to Field Dalling. it has steep banks and is occasionally dredged, but you can see from the photos that it carries no silt.
here it is at a much higher level than usual; it can just be a trickle in places in dry weather. the river Stiffkey itself is a chalk stream, one of several running south to north in the western part of North Norfolk. it can support trout, and even sea trout, which come upstream through the sluices at Morston Freshes (see here). it is the subject of a proposed whole catchment restoration and management plan (see here ). a quote from this website (http://www.norfolkriverstrust.org/); “it suffers from dredging, straightening (begun by Nicholas Bacon in the 16th century and continued most recently in the 1970s and 80s) and excessive fine sediment loads caused by run-off from arable farming. In most reaches the river has been disconnected from its floodplain by drainage and the effect of accumulated dredgings on the bank that confines the river to its bed. Initial results of a PhD study into the effects of adding artificial gravels to enhance trout and sea trout spawning, suggest the value of these is severely reduced as a result of excessive siltation. …. Irrigation of potatoes in the dry time of year has a double impact here: it washes topsoil away with water that would otherwise sustain chalkstream flows. This is still the case if water is pumped to a storage reservoir during winter, because the aquifer functions to attenuate water for summer flows. There is a pressing need to store water naturally within the floodplain to buttress flows under the stress of abstraction.”
In 2009, working with the landowner, Holkham Estate, the Wild Trout Trust installed ten gravel riffle areas, using approximately 700 tonnes of gravel and creating 300 metres of shallow riffle habitat. The river banks were re-profiled alongside the introduced
gravel to create low marginal berms and stockproof fencing and drinking points were installed. Since completion, a number of trout redds have been seen each winter on the introduced gravels.
Bale, Field Dalling and Binham all contribute to the Stiffkey and we need to take care of the catchment area. if you are in the habit of spraying a ditch next to your garden, think again and check where that water goes!