Situated just east of Norwich, Wheatfen in Surlingham is one of the most significant and well-studied wetland nature reserves in Britain.
Spanning 52 hectares, Wheatfen consists of large swathes of open fen, reed beds, sallow carr and two small broads (shallow lakes) called Wheatfen and Deep Waters, interspersed with a network of pathways that are open to the public to explore. It is managed by the Ted Ellis Trust who employ a reserve warden supported by a host of dedicated volunteers to maintain the site.
"I am very jealous for the pastoral peace of the East Anglian countryside. If it is destroyed, where will town dwellers and all the sick-of-suburbs people turn to find unspoiled country? Let us remain a breathing space for the cure of souls." - Ted Ellis
Ted Ellis (1909-1986) was a writer and broadcaster who was one of the most-well known and respected naturalists in East Anglia and beyond.
Ted amongst the reeds
Born in Guernsey of Norfolk parents who returned to Great Yarmouth in 1920, he was the Keeper of Natural History at the Castle Museum in Norwich from 1928-1956 and for forty years he lived with his family at Wheatfen Broad, Surlingham in a remote cottage amongst 130 acres of woodland and fen. Visit the East Anglian Film Archive and watch this 1976 clip to learn more about Ted.
Although he was a naturalist with a national reputation and his research was highly respected by the academic world, he was a man who had the ability to communicate his enthusiasm to everyone.
Ted sadly passed away in 1986, leaving not only a legacy of natural records and fascinating articles, but living proof that being inspired by nature is one of the most wonderful things we can experience.
Such a man deserves to be remembered, and so the Ted Ellis Trust was founded to do just that by preserving Wheatfen, the nature reserve and Site of Special Scientific Interest that Ted spent so much time in throughout his life.
One of the Trust’s main aims is to preserve Wheatfen’s rich and fragile ecology, but above all, it wants to keep its land and wildlife accessible for the enjoyment and education of children, students and everyone interested in Nature. Just as Ted would have wanted.
You can read more about the Trust’s history on the about us page.
From invertebrates to birds, fungi to wildflowers and everything in-between, Wheatfen is a haven for a number of important wildlife species. This includes two which cannot be found anywhere else in the UK, the Galeruca laticollis beetle and Timmia megapolitana moss.
Although Wheatfen is home to an abundance of amazing wildlife species, there’s some that steal the show! Click the images below for more information on our star species including where to look on the reserve for them and the best time of year to visit.
Papilio machaon britannicus
The swallowtail butterfly is one of the rarest and most iconic species found not only at Wheatfen but the whole of the Broads National Park. This striking yellow butterfly is the largest in the country, and the particular subspecies found in the Broads can’t be found anywhere else in the UK.
Where to spot: Smee Loke (alongside Thack Path) When to look: Between late May and mid July (with a potential second brood in August)
Marsh harriers are wonderful birds of prey that get their name from their favoured hunting grounds, sweeping over the marshes of the Broads. At one time, populations were dwindling and East Anglia was the last stronghold of this impressive harrier species (the largest in the UK). Thankfully they have bounced back and are now a regular sight at Wheatfen and throughout the Broads network.
Where to spot: Above the reedbeds and marshes of Wheatfen When to look: All year round (although summer is peak season)
Image by Elizabeth Dack
Norfolk hawker dragonfly
The Norfolk hawker is a rare dragonfly species mainly confined to East Anglia. It's brown body, clear wings and bright green eyes (it's known as a Green eyed hawker in Europe) makes it an unmistakable sight as it darts amongst the fens and ditches.
Where to spot: Racing up and down the dykes When to look: Late May, June and July
Image by Phil Corley
Willow emerald damselfly
Having only colonised East Anglia as recent as 2007, the willow emerald damselfly is a relative newcomer to the region. They are an attractive metallic green colour, with spots on their wings helping to distinguish them from other species. The females lay eggs in willow and other trees which overhang water, leaving characteristic scars.
Where to spot: Look for females laying eggs on overhanging willow trees and adults dispersing around the dykes When to look: August to September
Image by David Martin
The call of of this attractive dove-sized bird might be well-known and a relatively common sound whilst at the reserve but cuckoo populations have declined drastically in recent years and they are now a red-list conservation species. Fortunately sightings on the reserve are still common. In 2018 there were four calling males and if you listen closely you’ll be able to hear the bubbling of females once they have laid their eggs in someone else’s nest!
Where to spot: Listen out for their calls throughout the reserve and look to the trees for a chance to see one perched When to look: April to August
Image by Roger Fay
Silver-washed fritillary butterfly
The silver-washed fritillary butterfly is another species that at one stage was facing collapse but has now seen a resurgence. Following decades of absence from the reserve, sightings of this elegant, orange-coloured butterfly began in 2017 and now Wheatfen has an annual colony of them once again.
Where to spot: Along the Sluice Path, look out for their caterpillars feeding on Common Dog-violets When to look: July, August and early September
Image by Ann Kerridge
Galeruca laticollis beetle
This rare and endangered leaf beetle species is believed to only be found at one site across the entire of the UK - Wheatfen. It was first discovered on the reserve in 1997, and has since thrived thanks to an abundance of favoured food plant creeping thistle on site.
Where to spot: Look for larvae feeding on the rare fen plant Meadow Rue and adults feeding on creeping thistle. When to look: August to September
Image by James Emerson
This attractive fenland plant is listed near-threatened nationwide and was once very scarce at Wheatfen. These days it is thriving thanks to regular mowing regimes around the reserve. Look out for its distinctive pink flowers and tendrils which it uses to clamber up along nearby vegetation.
Where to spot: Mowed areas When to look: Flowers in early June through to end of July
Image by Will Fitch
Scarce chaser dragonfly
Despite being both rare nationally (hence their name!) and in Norfolk, the scarce chaser has a noticeable stronghold at Wheatfen. This dragonfly species is part of the chaser family, known for the territorial 'chasing' behaviour it exhibits whilst perched on vegetation. Male dragonflies (pictured) can be identified by their blue abdomen and eyes, whilst females are brown with brown eyes.
Where to spot: Across the reserve, especially along the Penguin Dyke path When to look: Early May to late July
Image by Ann Kerridge
Live audio from the reserve
Thanks to Recast Music Education, Locus Sonus and a fantastic team of volunteers from the Mancroft Advice Project, Wheatfen is now part of the HomeSounds project consisting of a global network of online microphones that form a soundmap. This means there’s a constant stream of live audio from the reserve that allows you to listen to the sounds of calling birds, pattering rain and the whistling wind whenever you want to. You really can listen to Wheatfen wherever you are in the world!
Wheatfen Nature Reserve The Covey Surlingham, Norwich NR14 7AL Map
Hidden away near Surlingham in the heart of the Broads, Wheatfen is a magical nature reserve backing onto the River Yare. It is home to the Ted Ellis Trust, who look after the reserve and run regular events throughout the year.