Covering the coast, Burnham Market, Wells, Holt & surrounding villages

Championing local conservation heroes

23rd May 2021

When we think of conservation, there’s a tendency to imagine rainforests, ice caps, giant pandas and other worldly issues but perhaps conservation should start at home, on our doorstep, says Sarah Whittley. In North Norfolk, we’re fortunate to have many individuals that think the same, and like true heroes, they’re not good at blowing their own trumpets, so we thought we’d do it for them in our new series

Our first hero is Chrissie Kelley, head of species management at Pensthorpe Conservation Trust, although I can imagine her running for the hills at the mention of the H word. For Chrissie the job comes naturally; from early memories of feeding the world’s rarest geese, the nēnē, from her pushchair at Slimbridge, her destiny was set – she knew she wanted to work with birds. 

Setting the course is the first important step but arriving at the destination isn’t always straightforward. Chrissie’s course took her to Leeds University to study zoology, but she admits it was her volunteering and connections through fieldwork that helped just as much. 

“By getting involved at ground level not only helps you understand the problems, it’s the best way of learning and building networks,” explains Chrissie, who urges anyone with an interest to start by getting in the field. 

With her passion for birds imbued at WWT’s Slimbridge Wetland Centre in Gloucestershire, she began making friends with like-minded people. Little did she know that one person in particular would go on to have an enormous effect on her life. From a tenuous link to a love of whippets, Chrissie and her family got to know Mike Lubbock who was then the director of aviculture.

But in 1985 he left Slimbridge for North Carolina to create Sylvan Heights Waterfowl Center, now the largest and most biologically significant waterfowl collection in the world. Through the connection she made with Mike, a three month volunteering gap led to further volunteering, with them and other conservation organisations, over the following two years during and after university.

It’s no wonder Chrissie is now head of species management at Pensthorpe. Chrissie has dedicated her professional life to conservation, specifically the last 12 years to corncrakes; not everyone would have heard of this bird, but pre the Industrial Revolution their far reaching crex crex call (which is also their scientific name) would commonly be heard in grassland. Now they are on the UK’s Red List, meaning they are given highest conservation priority; if nothing was done, they would be extinct in the UK within 15 years. 

Chrissie releasing a corncrake © Roger Tidman

But with all the science, technology and field craft Chrissie admits, “We’re still not there. After the release of 100s of birds, we still don’t have a self-sustaining population.” But such things can take time, such species haven’t been lost overnight and it will take years to reverse such declines. But with more work on habitat restoration and preservation, there’s hope.

But there are success stories, such as the reintroduction of many red squirrel kittens from Pensthorpe’s breeding programme, released on Anglesey, helping to increase the population on the island from 40 to over 700. There’s also Operation Turtle Dove, a project highlighting the plight of this now rare summer migrant. Chrissie and Pensthorpe have been partners with the Great Crane Project, a concept first conceived by Pensthorpe in 2004. Over the last six years, 93 cranes have been released back into the wild, more than doubling the established population. Once plentiful in the UK, this handsome bird would roam wetlands before many were drained or shot. A small population found their way back to Norfolk and have been successfully breeding in the Broads for many years. With the whole team Pensthorpe tirelessly working on this project and the securing of more land, it is hoped that more birds will grace the Wensum Valley with their theatrical displays and distinctive trumpeting vocals.   

“What’s next?” I ask Chrissie. I can actually hear the excitement and the love for this enigmatic bird in her voice. “Curlews”, she replies. It’s a sad fact that such a beloved bird in the UK is facing a catastrophic decline. Step in Team Pensthorpe; as they rip off their shirts to reveal their superhuman clothes beneath, it’s good to know we’ve got such a heroic organisation looking out for these wonderful birds.