Saturday, 23 November 2013

November Saltmarsh

by Nick Acheson, Norfolk Wildlife Trust

A Norfolk heath is a non-natural habitat. A chalk grassland is a non-natural habitat too. Even an ancient wood is a non-natural habitat. All have been shaped, maintained, harvested and farmed for centuries and are as much a result of human designs on the landscape as of nature’s processes. In Norfolk there are amazingly few habitats which are self-forming and self-maintaining – which therefore require no intervention from conservationists to keep them as they are – and almost all of them are associated with the sea, its winds, its waves and its tides.

Saltmarsh on the north Norfolk coast
 In much of Norfolk the tide is a commonplace. The tide comes in and the tide goes out and those who love and use the sea – fishermen, sailors, beachcombers and rockpoolers – feel the tides run through their daily lives as keenly as other coastal creatures do. As Richard Girling puts it in his superb book Sea Change, ‘You can’t live in Britain and have no feeling for the sea. It is the amniotic fluid in which our civilization grew and was shaped.’ But do we really stop to consider the tide? It is caused – remember – by the gravitational pull of the Moon and the Sun, heavenly bodies which are respectively around 400,000 and 150,000,000 km from Earth. This alone is astonishing.

Yet the tide does more than astonish. It helps make two fascinating and oft-ignored Norfolk habitats. Two of the wildest, least human-led habitats in Norfolk at that: mudflat and saltmarsh. In areas sheltered from the intense energy of the waves, such as enclosed bays and the harbours behind spits, the finest sediments in the water – tiny particles of silt – are deposited at the top of the tide, where the water has least energy. These particles cling to one another and where they are not shifted by subsequent tides they form a tenuous, easily-moved mudflat. Where conditions allow, filamentous algae colonise the mudflat, followed by what botanists call glasswort and in Norfolk we call samphire. These plants stabilise the flat and encourage more silts and clays to settle. A saltmarsh is born.

Wigeon in Flight, photo by Nick Appleton

By autumn in a saltmarsh, summer’s riot of sea lavender flowers and even the happy flowers of sea aster are done. In many ways, though, this is the time of year when our saltmarshes come to life. As the marsh greys to tattered mounds of sea purslane and dull tangles of shrubby seablite, voices, colours and wild wings whirr in from the north. Here are the shrill whinnies of wigeon, copper-headed and snow-shouldered; here too the Slavic purr of the brent geese arriving from Siberian tundras. With them come blade-winged peregrines and minute muscular merlins: the feathered dramatis personae of a Norfolk saltmarsh in winter.

So this winter, seek out Norfolk’s wildest, least human-regulated habitats. Walk through a saltmarsh at low tide; listen to the tseep of meadow pipits and the happy burble of curlews; smell the nostril-stabbing tang of the year’s last sea wormwood. For even in our modern world, the wild is right around us, waiting to be explored.

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