The Broads IPA

Location: In East Anglia, lying between the Norfolk and Suffolk coasts and the city of Norwich.

Grid Reference: TG 349 159

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Dominated by six rivers and more than sixty shallow lakes, the Broads are Britain's largest area of wetland habitat and home to an exceptional diversity of plants specially adapted to life in a world of water.

The sixty or more broads found in this part of East Anglia range from small, isolated lakes to huge expanses of water. Formed in medieval times when peat was dug to use as fuel, they became flooded as water levels rose over the centuries. The rich variety of habitats range from the open water of shallow lakes to flooded reedbeds and from boggy marshes and fens to and wet ‘carr’ woodland with willows and alders.

The Broads provide a perfect home for a wealth of plants. The freshwater lakes themselves are rich in pondweeds – sixteen different species are known from here including rarer species like shining pondweed and flat-stalked pondweed. Where nutrients are low, the floor of the lakes may be covered with carpets of stoneworts – large algae rather like freshwater seaweeds. Nearly 20 species are known here including great tassel stonewort, bearded stonewort and starry stonewort. On the surface of the water, yellow water-lily, white water-lily and rare water-soldier can often be found.

Around the lakes, dense patches of reed and rush develop. With their feet in the water, typical plants of this ‘tall-herb fen’ include meadowsweet, hemp agrimony and purple and yellow loosestrifes, while more local specialities include marsh fern, cowbane, greater water-parsnip, greater spearwort, marsh-pea and marsh sow-thistle. Milk-parsley also makes its home here, a safe refuge for swallowtail butterflies that lay their eggs on this rare plant.

On slightly drier land, wet fens and grazing marshes develop and these alone support more than 250 different plant species. This is where rare fen orchid makes its home, along with crested buckler fern and round-leaved wintergreen. Areas of shorter fenland vegetation may contain southern marsh orchids as well as the occasional early marsh orchid, a beautiful pale cream variation of which is one of our rarest orchids.

The grazing marshes are criss-crossed by a network drainage ditches known as dykes which are as important for water plants as the open broads. Here, greater bladderwort and frogbit grow, along with arrowhead and fringed, yellow and white water-lilies. These ditches also support rare sharp-leaved pondweed and grasswrack pondweed.

When fen is left unmanaged small shrubs and trees may start to grow, leading to the formation of carr woodland. There are approximately 3000 hectares of woodland and scrub in the Broads, one third of which has developed within the last 50 years. The most valuable areas of carr woodland are those which are mature and are a largely undisturbed wilderness; a tangle of woody species, shade-tolerant herbs and lower growing plants. These areas are damp, and shady with an abundance of ferns, mosses and liverworts, while extensive lichen and fungi grow on branches and dead wood.

Image: Norfolk Broads © Tim Pankhurst/Plantlife

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