Thursday, 30 January 2014

Cley Marshes: January 2014

CEO of Norfolk Wildlife Trust, Brendan Joyce

Following the tragic helicopter accident at Cley Marshes on 7 January, the site investigation and recovery work has now been completed and whilst the shock and sad loss of life and the grieving families and friends remain in our thoughts, we are now more or less back to normal at the visitor centre. The immediate crash site has been completely cleared and we pay tribute to the work of the USAF, RAF Ministry of Defence, Police and other emergency services in dealing with such a difficult and harrowing task and for leaving the site with virtually no trace of the incident. The area has been fenced off to ensure recovery of the habitats and to monitor and deal with any residual issues such as a small amount of unrecovered aircraft fuel, the environmental effects of which have been very strictly controlled and pose no long term consequences. We would politely ask everyone to keep out of this fenced area as a mark of respect for those who lost their lives there. There really is nothing to see or find, but I have had reports of some people climbing over the fence already which has caused concern and upset for some visitors and staff. I would ask that if you see this happening, please report it to the Visitor Centre immediately.

Meanwhile, following the December storm surge, the shingle bank now appears to be ‘self-healing’ as the natural processes of wind and tide, which caused so much destruction, are now sealing the breaches. Nature has done more than £60,000 of repair work in just a few days and probably more sustainably. It still remains a very fragile situation, and could all be as quickly undone in the next round of very high tides due in early February. However, we should all remember that the event that occurred on 6 December whereby very high tides, a surge tide and major storms and winds combined, is very rare.

There has been much talk in the media recently about the Government and the Environment Agency deciding to leave nature to take its course and not intervene. Headlines such as “Sacrificed to the Sea” are somewhat provocative and perhaps the remarks made by the CEO of the Environment Agency, under extreme pressure both due to the unprecedented challenges faced all around the country and having to deal with major cuts in funding, I believe were more to invite question and debate rather than confirm a decision. Our experience locally has been that Environment Agency and Natural England Officials have wanted to monitor developments closely rather than react too quickly with” with costly interventions that could so easily be destroyed again in forthcoming February high tides. I believe that this approach has been vindicated as intelligent because well informed decisions about intervention, repairs and future management need to take account of the medium term, not short term events from which we hope to recover from as we have done before.
Our own position regarding Cley and Salthouse Marshes is that we are already in and recognise a process of managed re-alignment of the flood defence line, an issue that has been under debate for many years and agreed through wide consultation with key stakeholders and the local communities in 2006/7. There remains many who think that maintaining the line of defence where it has been is imperative, but on this stretch of coast we are dealing with a dynamic situation where previous defence strategies for what is a natural shingle barrier, have probably caused more harm than good in trying to hold back the tide. Concrete and walls have of course been thought about, but are not only considered to be environmentally unsustainable they could actually cause more harm than good, never mind the cost. The current thinking is that the more this natural shingle barrier is allowed to move landwards and reform naturally, as detailed scientific studies suggest, the more sustainable will be the natural flood defence in the medium term, for land that was after all relatively recently reclaimed from the sea by us in the first place. There may not be a long term solution, but we can continue to manage this process, to maintain freshwater habitats and to protect properties, the regional economy, the interests of internationally important wildlife habitats and the livelihoods of local people for many more years to come.

Anyone who thinks that hard flood defences are the answer at any cost needs to consider the underlying forces of nature which are far stronger than any human engineering feats, and are being driven by the inexorable processes of climate change, sea level rise and isoclinic shift.

However, managed realignment does not mean abandonment. We might all have to accept, however reluctantly, that these changes may be fundamental in the long term, as predicted, even to the extent of the eventual loss of properties, never mind wildlife habitats. Perish the thought, but a look back at history must surely tell us all that there are forces at work which are more powerful than anything that humans can control, regardless of whether you believe we are the cause of the problem or not, and which are constantly reshaping our world, especially in low lying coastal areas.

There is a particular local and complex problem at Cley/Salthouse known as coastal squeeze. In some other parts of the country, such as at Abbots Hall in Essex, managed by Essex Wildlife Trust, there has been the opportunity to allow breaches in the defences to occur, allowing natural processes to provide more sustainable solutions to flood defence and also to roll back nature conservation and human economic interests in a more orderly fashion. It has been very difficult to negotiate and to convince people that this is not a question of abandonment, but one of sensible, sustainable managed retreat. There is a reluctant acceptance that we can do more harm than good to ourselves by trying to force nature back rather than work with it. So far, this policy has been working very well in some places, but this option does not exist at Cley as once you reach the coast road, perhaps the boundary of the land which was once reclaimed from the sea, the land rises sharply on old sea cliffs, now a mixture of arable land, heathland and woodland. Not much opportunity there to create new coastal saltmarsh, grazing marsh, reedbed and freshwater pools which are the stuff of so much amazing birdlife and other wildlife and also so much human interest.
Aerial image of Hilgay, taken by Hexcam
We have thought ahead and long term, with the Environment Agency, Natural England, RSPB and other partners, by acquiring new land elsewhere in anticipation of eventual loss of coastal habitats. In this case, it has been brave decisions in the face of uncertainty regarding acquiring land and undertaking extraordinary land management work at Hilgay and Methwold, in the Wissey Valley Living Landscape, in a pioneering and quite expensive attempt to create new wetland habitats to replace those that are likely to be lost eventually on the coast. We need much more of this approach. However, despite years of work and amazing progress in habitat creation, we do not have breeding bitterns at Methwold yet, so this kind of work should be considered as long term and not a cheap option or necessarily the only solution and we should not be prepared to give up what we have until we have alternative solutions.

But to bring us back to the local situation on the Norfolk Coast. Whether we are thinking of birds, wildlife in general, conservation of rare and diminishing wildlife habitats, people’s property, homes and land, livelihoods and the economy, we are all in this together and  in a precarious position. We need to wake up to that fact and whilst life has largely gone on in recent years without too much incident, the more recent events have sparked so much concern and debate and left us all a bit frightened and uncertain about the future.

Perhaps the punch line position statement should have come earlier, but I did want to say something about the wider context first. Despite these events, this is not the time to give up these precious habitats or to consider them to be unmanageable and untenable. We would not have given such careful consideration to the very recent acquisition of Popes Marsh, if we thought otherwise. We were acutely aware of the risk in terms of the unpredictable effects of our changing climate and the fact that this part of the coast is renowned for occasional (and perhaps increasing) catastrophic flood events from which we have recovered. The agreed policy in place for this area is one of recognised managed realignment of the defence line, not one of abandonment. These habitats, which are vital not only to wildlife but to people and the economy. We know that they cannot be defended at any cost but believe the true cost of managing the flood defence and adaptive management is very small compared to the value of wildlife and the regional economy. There is much more at stake than is realised. We accept that cannot be sustained forever, they should be maintained for as long as practically possible and also actions taken in parallel to create alternatives for wildlife and people.

So perhaps the biggest shock of all is not so much the floods, which are more a question of when, not if, and how we adaptively manage and adjust over time, but what might be perceived as a complete U turn on agreed policies which were thrashed out with all key stakeholders and the local community. Who on earth thought that this would not cost money? Bodies like the Wildlife Trusts, RSPB and National Trust have highlighted for many, many years the need for more sustainable and cost effective flood defence strategies which are beneficial to people as well as wildlife.

NWT Cley Marshes, photo by Barry Madden
NWT believes that continued investment in the defence and management of the freshwater habitats at Cley is not only vital for wildlife but is also vital for people and the economy. We may not be able to defend these habitats forever, but should do so for as long as is practically possible. We can accept the argument that it takes a little time to get the intervention right but we do not accept the argument that it is not worth the cost.


  1. Brendan

    That is superb collation of the situation and an excellent summary of the options and actions. Your conclusion that protecting these wonderful habitats will benefit people and wildlife is very important. I hope that everybody in Norfolk gets behind you to achieve your very well thought out strategy.

  2. I agree, an excellent summary. All we need now is for the 'managed realignment' to actually be done, and a quickly as possible. The EA promised 'managed realignment' of the shingle profile years ago when they finally gave up that annual silly steep bulldozing of the beach, but they never did it. It is marvellous that the two breaches at Salthouse have healed naturally, but they and a couple of other low spots badly need a helping hand with a bulldozer - and before the next northerly wind would be good. A stitch in time saves nine.

  3. Interesting to read your article in light of the debate going on regarding the Somerset levels. I suspect a swing away from funding for habitats in favour of engineering for the protection of peoples homes is about to take place. I´d be interested to know if you or the EA pay for any upkeep/repairs to the defences of your habitats should they prove necessary?