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Nature: Catching ‘gillies’ on a trip to Norfolk

By Martin Walters

Crabs being unloaded
Crabs being unloaded

Escaping the unusual recent heatwave, we spent a few glorious days on the Norfolk coast where we were refreshed by the purer sea air and slightly lower temperatures – a welcome respite from the pollen-laden, polluted air of Cambridge’s traffic-clogged streets.

Herring Gulls
Herring Gulls

The mournful voices of woodpigeons and collared doves were enlivened by the shrill calls of herring and black-headed gulls and the constant piping of oystercatchers. These smart, black and white waders are common on the saltmarshes and mudflats, and increasingly further inland too, and remain one of my favourite birds. They calmly patrol the shallows, assiduously probing for worms and molluscs, but in flight they become quite frantic, usually in pairs or small groups, and seem unable to fly without uttering a volley of loud two-tone whistles.

I always imagine them rushing to attend some urgent meeting for which they are in serious danger of being late – their calls could be saying “we’re late, we’re late, we’re late, got to rush, got to rush, got to rush”. Then they glide back to the shore and suddenly calm down again, regaining their decorum, resting quietly or feeding along the tideline. Although they look mainly black when standing, in flight the bright white rump and wing-bars are a striking, distinctive feature.

The Norfolk coast is home to our smallest seabird, the little tern. Tiny and dainty, little terns plunge-dive into the shallows to catch young fish or sand-eels. Their lives are highly precarious and beset by dangers. After wintering in West Africa they arrive here in spring and nest on sand and shingle beaches where they are at risk of disturbance from people and dogs, but also from high tides which sometimes wash their eggs away. Though highly camouflaged, the eggs are laid on an open scrape and are often taken by gulls, crows, and even herons. There are only about 1,500 pairs breeding in the country and the remaining colonies are mostly carefully protected.

In the seaside rough grassland the flowers of summer add their colours – the pink-purple of common mallow, bright red poppies, and the tall spikes of viper’s bugloss with bright blue flowers, each with projecting purple stamens.


Clustered close to the ground are patches of field bindweed, with pretty flowers striped pink and white, attracting visiting insects such as hoverflies.

A few fishing boats still ply their trade in the North Sea, mainly after crabs and lobsters.

The crabs that feature commercially are edible crabs, a large orange-coloured species with the distinctive pie-crust edging to the carapace. These are harvested from the sea-floor several miles from land and brought to harbour in crates, to be offloaded to supply fishmongers and restaurants.

The smaller crabs that children catch in baited nets are known locally as ‘gillies’. These are green shore crabs, a smaller species with no culinary value. Some fishermen specialise on dredging up whelks, large marine snails that used to be widely prized as a delicacy, though far fewer people eat them these days. Astonishingly, more than 90 per cent of the local whelk catch apparently now finds its way to South Korea.

Field bindweed
Field bindweed

I have never eaten a whelk, but there is one seaside delicacy that I always enjoy and that is glasswort, more commonly known as samphire. This odd plant grows along the muddy edges of the saltmarsh and was happily in season during our visit. The flowers and leaves of glasswort are tiny and almost invisible, so the plant seems just to consist of shiny, fleshy stems.

The lower stems and roots are tough and leathery, but the upper stems are rubbery and rather crunchy. Glasswort tastes strongly of sea salt and can be chewed raw but is best steamed or boiled and served with olive oil and butter — a superb vegetable to accompany any dish, especially fish.


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