Tuesday, 30 July 2013

National Marine Week: Make the most of the coast

Nick Acheson, NWT Volunteer

So you reckon you know about wildlife in Norfolk? You can recognise the heaven-borne mutterings of the skylark; you can spot the fine footprint of a fox in a puddle of mud and the spraint of an otter on a wintry riverbank; you know the habits of the swallowtail and the haunts of the hawfinch. You know about wildlife in Norfolk.

Strandline with whelk eggs and Flustra foliacea, Tabitha Pearman
But do you? Have you thought about the sea? We don’t – think about the sea – do we? It’s there, of course, the grey-green-blue-brown background to our walks along the coast, to our days spent watching seabirds, and our gazing at sea lavender in bright bloom in sunny July. But we don’t think about it. Nor do we think about the plants and animals which live in it, just metres from our shore; plants and animals which are as much a part of Norfolk as the paintings of Cotman, the tang of Colman’s Mustard, and the peregrines nesting on the spire of Norwich Cathedral.

These plants and animals are astonishingly diverse. Scientists estimate that as many as half of all the species which inhabit the UK live in the sea. So, with a touch of extrapolation, we might say that half of all the plants, animals and other organisms which live in Norfolk live in the sea. It bears thinking about, doesn’t it? For, every time you see a greenfinch at the sunflower seeds in your garden, every time a hedgehog potters past your pond, every time you hear – with a leap of your heart – the lusty song of a nightingale from a thicket of blackthorn, another creature respires, divides its cells and procreates unseen beneath the North Sea’s waves.

So what are all these creatures? We’re only just learning about them. As recently as 2010 divers from Seasearch East discovered a unique chalk reef stretching for miles along the coast of northeast Norfolk. It’s home to innumerable species of marine life – among them anemones, crustaceans, sponges, algae, fish, cephalopods and nudibranchs – and is of international importance. In 2011 the same team discovered a new species of sponge there: not new for Norfolk, not new for the UK, but new for science. So it’s a sponge which, as far as we know, lives only in the chalk reef off the coast of Norfolk and until two years ago we knew nothing of its existence.

Cromer Shoal Chalk Beds, photo by Rob Spray
We have no idea yet what other creatures may lie undiscovered in the waters just off Norfolk’s shore. What we do know is that our marine habitats and wildlife are every bit as diverse, precious and threatened as our wildlife on land. Until now the UK has dragged its fins and flippers appallingly where marine conservation is concerned but the time for action is now. The most significant thing that members of the public can do is learn about marine habitats and their wildlife, and become informed lobbyists for their conservation. 

Holding an edible crab, photo by John Hurst
The good news is that in July each year The Wildlife Trusts hold a festival called National Marine Week, aimed at spreading the word about our seas, and one of the most active players is Norfolk Wildlife Trust. Again this year there will be host of events in Norfolk, for experienced naturalists, for families, for members of the public, and again this year many of them will be free.

To find out more, and to take become involved in marine conservation in Norfolk, visit the events pages of the Norfolk Wildlife Trust website.

Wherever you are along the coast, happy marine wildlife-watching to you this month.

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