Wednesday, 18 December 2013

Cley catch-up: after the flood

Barry Madden, Volunteer Bird Guide at NWT Cley Marshes

I didn’t know quite what to expect as I crested the rise along Old Woman Lane last week. Normally the first glimpse of Cley Marshes is welcome relief after the drive from Norwich, but today I knew the reserve had changed and suffered greatly at the expense of the storm surge. First impressions from a distance were not too bad; certainly the salt water had been sluiced off efficiently leaving behind the familiar patchwork of meadow, reed bed and shallow pools. But after a few seconds I registered that perhaps the brown staining was a little too extensive and then I realised that something more fundamental had changed. Parts of the shingle ridge had gone. Where days ago the shingle ridge still partially blocked views of the sea from the land, now only a thin shallow line of shingle remains. The bank will still be protective – it is wider now so absorbs wave energy. And the breaches will be repaired by EA. But the North Sea, calm and blue today lay within view.

The breach at the West Bank, photo by Barry Madden
 Although the reserve had been closed to the public to allow a full damage assessment to take place, I was tasked with walking the accessible perimeter pathways to engage with any people that may wish to understand what was being done in terms of remedial work. A trudge towards East Bank showed very clearly how far and deep the inundation had penetrated with debris strewn across the reed marsh and by the side of the road. Portions of hides, fencing, and other infrastructure lay haphazardly across the flattened roadside scrub which was piled high with broken reed stems and coated heavily with dark slimy mud. The freshwater drain was clogged with sludge and huge chunks had been gouged from the East Bank itself. All in all a rather dispiriting sight.

The beach, photo by Barry Madden
The beach: a scene now littered with chunks of concrete and the exposed underlying bed. An unveiled line of fence posts, which must have marked the historic boundary of the reserve, can now be seen on the seaward side of the shingle; the whole protective bank has effectively been swept inland leaving behind a scoured sandy underlay. Oh, and we seem to have lost the beach car park!

Splattering my way an hour later back along the coast road I overheard a walker say to his mate something along the lines of ‘They’ve got a heck of a job clearing this up’. The enigmatic ‘they’ referenced translates to Norfolk Wildlife Trust I guessed. And he was right; it is a heck of a job. There will be boardwalks, fences and gates to repair, hides to rebuild and clean, flood banks to plug, untold tons of rancid vegetation to clear away, footpaths to restore, signage to replace… I could go on, but I’m sure you get the picture. And that is just the stuff I noticed as a layman walking around, there will be more technical issues to grapple with if we are to return Cley Marshes to the richly varied wildlife haven we all know and love.

But you know despite all the doom and gloom, I sense there is a real desire to get stuck into the restoration programme. Everyone I spoke to seemed to have the attitude: we can’t stand in the way of nature’s relentless stride, but we can achieve a positive managed retreat. We need time to manage the retreat effectively for the habitats and resident wildlife, which makes re-instatement of the damaged infrastructure so critical. 

Pink-footed geese, photo by Barry Madden
And in defiance of all that has happened, the birdlife today was prolific. Skeins of pink-footed geese flew across a cloudless sky all day searching for likely looking fields full of beet tops or somewhere to roost. Flocks of lapwing and golden plover spangled the scrapes whilst water rails screeched and screamed from the ditches. A peregrine sailed slowly over my head flushing parties of displaced reed buntings, linnets and meadow pipits from the Eye. The stonechat pair were still flitting around in their favoured patch of scrub and the familiar female kestrel sat preening atop a stunted elder bathed in the warm glow of the golden afternoon sun. Even in its altered state Cley still provides an essential home for many and will continue to do so for decades to come.     

For updates on Cley Marshes, please call the visitor centre on 01263 740008 or visit the NWT website

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