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I love a bit of serendipity. I hadn't really been paying attention when Mrs K suggested a few days camping in Norfolk to kick off the summer holidays and I didn't have a plan in mind. The first morning we headed off to the beach at Sea Palling but I was a little underwhelmed (we're spoilt for beaches up here in the North East). So I wandered off to get a coffee, and found an interpretation panel which mentioned nearby Hickling Nature Reserve was the sole location of swallowtail butterflies in the UK. This caught my attention.

It didn't take much persuading to get the rest of the family to leave the beach and check it out. As soon as we walked in to the visitors centre, they asked us if we fancied a boat trip on the Broads and we said 'yes'. As we waited at the jetty, a bittern flew overhead – my first ever spot after years and years of trying.

Now, I knew that East Anglia used to be almost all marsh but that extensive network of ditches and dykes had been used to drain the fertile land for agriculture. I had kind of assumed that waterways of The Broads were a remnant of that ancient marsh, preserved for the future by chance or design. But, as Richard our boatman explained, I was wrong – The Broads are entirely manmade; the legacy of industrial-scale, but pre-industrial peat and clay extraction, flooded accidentally at first, then maintained for game hunting and pleasure trips via wind-powered pumps.

In other words, everything in Norfolk was artificial to some extent. This is no surprise as I am currently reading the superb 'Sapiens' by Yuval Noah Harari, who points out that every time our species colonised a continent, a massive extinction event happened pretty much immediately. Humans have been shaping eco-systems on a mammoth scale (pun all too appropriate) since the days of nomadic hunting and gathering. When we started farming, then very little wilderness survived.

I mused on this the following day as I cycled around the county, passing some signs campaigning to protect 'unspoilt countryside' by some proposed project or other. I think it is important that we remember that what we see, and conserve, as the natural world is anything but. Neither should we get too romantic about our ancestors living in harmony with the eco-system around them – as Harari points out, this is twaddle. The sustainability movement is trying to develop that harmony, but we're probably going to have to look to the future and not be constrained by some rose-tinted view of the past.

By the way, we never did see the butterfly, but we did see its caterpillars. The future!

 

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