Interview: Author Mark Cocker

How one man turned a five-acre patch of land in Norfolk into a habitat-rich area for wildlife

 Mark Cocker

Mark Cocker

No birder can fail to get excited about going to Norfolk, but my trip was not going to be just
a birding experience, but also a chance to interview, work with, laugh with and share
a ‘little bit’ of moaning with Mark Cocker. Yes work!

As he details in his most recent book, Our Place, Mark bought himself five acres in 2012 from the proceeds of one of his books, Birds and People. At one time, the land would have been described as ‘fields’ by the River Yare, but nature had other ideas and left to its own devices had slowly turned open ground to willow scrub. With the accumulation of leaf litter and roots, it would have one day turned to mature woodland.

Clearing areas of scrub painstakingly with a bushman saw, Mark was gaining some useful firewood as well as time to think about his writing. Working alongside Mark, I was asked to cut up some recent ‘felled’ willow, stacking the smaller branches and piling the large trunks to eventually dry out and then take to his home, cut up as logs.

Mark first showed me around his ‘showpiece’. After only six years he had certainly turned the site into a mixture of habitats, with mature willow scrub, coppiced growth, tall herbs, reedbeds, draining ditches and a small area of field, grazed by the local Chinese Water Deer. The aim is to attract Norfolk Hawkers to buzz around the area, Elephant Hawk Moths to the Willowherb and Fen Raft Spider to the dykes.

Mark, of course, has several books to his name, a mixture of biography, history and memoir. They include Claxton: Field Notes from a Small Planet (2014), shortlisted for several awards (including the Thwaites/Wainwright Prize) and winner of the New Angle Prize. Crow Country was nominated for a Samuel Johnson Prize. Birds and People (2013),
a collaboration with photographer David Tipling, was published to international acclaim, and the two were shortlisted for six literary awards including the Thwaites/Wainwright Prize.

In 2016, Mark was awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Literature from the University of East Anglia.

Lots of different species

David Tipling was not just a friend and collaborator, but used to be his neighbour in the woodland/habitat business. Long discussions about the world of nature took place either on his or Mark’s land. Hard days thinking about future ideas and even books came out of these discussions. David has now sold up next door and bought a wood closer to home in north Norfolk.

Wandering around the land to see Mark’s past work, we stopped at a mature Oak which, given its age, had not been planted by Mark. Given the distance to the next mature Oak where the acorn had come from, it must have been planted by a Jay carrying and burying the acorn ready for a winter meal, then forgetting it. Here, the 600 species of birds, mammals, bumblebees, dragonflies, butterflies, macro and micro moths already recorded on the site were added to when Mark spotted not one but two species of moth using the lichen on his oak as camouflage. Although not ID’d straight away, the wide depth of knowledge Mark has as a naturalist, shone through, as he gave the Latin names of possible species.

In his younger days, his experience led to him to work for organisations like the old Nature Conservancy Council on Holkham NNR in Norfolk, for the RSPB working on species protection on a pair of Parrot Crossbills in the Holkham car park, and for Birdlife International. Mark has also guided for holiday companies such as Limosa and Naturetrek.

Talking to him, I got a good insight into a how a book is constructed. For example, Mark walked 30 miles of the 62-mile long Norfolk Coast Path while writing his latest volume. Not the longest walk in Britain, but it covered many areas of land now protected by conservation organisations, like the RSPB, Norfolk Wildlife Trust and the National Trust. Many walkers walk at speed, but Mark was doing as little as a mile an hour, due to his naturalist’s instinct, wanting to ID as much as possible along the way. He was seeing part of the success of Operation Neptune, a programme set up by the National Trust to buy 900 miles of coastline (today it owns 775 miles).

Mark explained to me that the purchase of the ‘Flow Country’ in northern Scotland was one of the RSPB’s finest hours.

“Described as ‘Britain’s last wilderness, the Flow Country’s premier parts were bought by the RSPB to protect it from forestry and wind farms and has led to the organisation’s single largest landholding, a whopping 52,000 acres.” The RSPB is now promoting an area of Scotland desperate for ‘wildlife tourism’.

Bird song

The Great Fen Project is another scheme joining land together to protect water levels and other factors which make the land tick.

“Too many reserves are ‘islands’ and need connecting to give wildlife a better chance,” said Mark.

 Brimstone Butterfly Naturepix/Alamy

Brimstone Butterfly
Naturepix/Alamy

While working hard on the willow scrub, we stop for a while to watch a Brimstone butterfly cross our path. This was the first butterfly of the year for me, having come from ‘up north’!

The list of bird song was added to by a Willow Warbler fresh in from Africa, along with three other warblers – Chiffchaffs loving the scrub, Cetti’s preferring scrub with reeds growing through it, and Blackcaps enjoying the brambles found in Mark’s brash piles, keeping the deer at bay.

Warblers still to arrive on Mark’s land include Whitethroat plus Garden, Grasshopper, Sedge and Reed Warblers. “Not many of those where you come from,” said Mark, meaning the Cetti’s Warbler. “We’ve had records from Walney to Siddick Pond. There are breeding birds as far north as Leighton Moss on the west and Teesside on the east,” was the reply.

This brought us on to ‘twitching’, which Mark used to do but not anymore.

“To think I once drove overnight from Scilly to Aberdeen to see an Isabelline Wheatear!” he said. I couldn’t beat that. “I did once sleep in when my mate had to wake me up to go for a Red-flanked Bluetail at St Abbs”, is all I could respond with.

His all-round naturalist’s cap gave him the rarest bird he ever found, while looking for the Great Yellow Bumblebee in the Outer Hebrides. He happened to be around Tarbert on Harris when he spotted a dream bird – a White-throated Needletail! 

“It is, in fact, the world’s fastest bird in level flight,” he said. “Unbelievable though it seemed to us, the eighth example ever to be seen on these islands was suddenly careering overhead.”

His most amusing moment came the following day. “Watching one friend go from gibbering anxiety to exultant delirium (when he finally saw the bird) was like watching an addict eventually get his fix!”

Mark Cocker – book research

 Green Woodpecker Nik Goulthorp/Alamy

Green Woodpecker
Nik Goulthorp/Alamy

We were soon back to reality, with a Green Woodpecker yaffling behind us, and soon more sawing was in progress. Both a Buzzard and a Kestrel made their appearance, while Mark told me of other records from his patch, such as Marsh Harrier and the sound of Cranes flying over.

We were soon back talking about the present book. “I read 50 books in one year to research this book,” he said (I hate to think how many Mark read for ‘Birds and People’, covering 592 pages!). Mark needed so much up to date information to write this new book – including minutiae such as the cost of fertilisers, and then the cost of removing the same fertiliser as a result of the damage it was doing to waterways. Mind-blowing stuff!

Mark explained that there was a limit to how much he could write in one book, nevertheless, but that he felt he had covered all the major aspects of his subject – whether or not we can save Britain’s wildlife. One interesting feature we talked about was that women created the RSPB 125 years ago, followed by years of it being dominated by men, but that now it is hard to go to a reserve and not find women working in major roles.

It was soon time for me to move on, leaving Mark to carry on his good work with a student, soon to arrive to do his stint at clearing willow and learn about writing from Mark. He still teaches writing as well as nature to groups.

“For me these days, the ideal wildlife walk is one where you don’t actually move because there is so much extraordinary life to see on one spot,” he said.

Mark’s time in Norfolk may be coming to an end, as his roots in Derbyshire are calling and he will have to sell his beloved wood, but wherever he ends up, more brilliant books will be coming our way in the future.

About Mark Cocker

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Mark Cocker is an author of creative non-fiction. He is also a naturalist and environmental tutor, who writes and broadcasts on nature and wildlife in a variety of national media. This year, he releases a new book Our Place (Cape) on the fate of British nature since the beginning of the 20th Century. He has travelled in more than 50 countries on six continents, and in 1999 was awarded a Winston Churchill Travel Fellowship to study birds in magico-medicinal practices in Benin and Cameroon. For the last 35 years his home has been in Norfolk, where much of his spare time is devoted to the restoration of a small wooded fen called Blackwater. He is married to the arts professional Mary Muir.