Friday, 29 August 2014

Storm Surge: wildlife on the edge

David North, Head of People and Wildlife


The night of 5 December 2013 was memorable – at least for those who live and work on our Norfolk coast. 
Photo by Richard Porter

The biggest storm surge since 1953: a night that brought flooding and damage to homes and businesses on parts of the North Norfolk coast. But at least, unlike 1953, there was good advance warning. But think again. There were some who make their homes on this coast who had no warning of the great flood to come that night. These were the wild mammals and birds who spend the winter on these coastal marshes. The myriads of tiny creatures which depend on freshwater habitats on our wonderful nature reserves at Cley Marshes, Blakeney Point and Salthouse Marshes.

Related blog post: CEO Brendan Joyce visits the site the morning after the night before. 
I remember the weekend after the storm surge walking from Salthouse village to Cley and back again and looking in awe and wonder at a landscape transformed. The usually busy main coast road transformed into a medieval looking footpath covered in parts with a debris of reed and mud waist high. It was extraordinary : odd bits of wood washed off the marshes, plastic boxes from the fishing industry, planks with nails in, all jumbled together. The familiar landscape of marsh and reedbed I know and love transformed into a vast expanse of water. The distant shingle ridge almost invisible, with huge waves still battering and overtopping the shingle in many places.

The silence of walking a usually busy road with no passing cars was striking. Just the calls of thousands of gulls feeding on earthworms killed by the salt water and brent geese bobbing on water where usually they would be busy grazing on marsh. No warning for the wildlife. What could possibly survive?

For me the memory of this post-storm surge walk, my awe at the sheer power of nature to transform in a single night the familiar into a territory strange and unknown, will live with me a life time.

The National Trust rangers inspect the damage to the Blakeney Freshes, photo by Richard Porter

For those who didn’t experience the storm surge so personally (and indeed for those who did!) Norfolk Wildlife Trust, in a partnership with the Forum Trust, have put together photos and video of the impact of this one December night on the well-known and much loved nature reserves of Blakeney Point, Cley and Salthouse. Come along see what happened on that night and how the next morning the coastal landscape was changed beyond recognition. Hear about the work of National Trust and Norfolk Wildlife Trust to repair and restore these nature reserves: rebuilding pathways, repairing hides, replacing bridges and enabling visitors to once again enjoy these special places.

Grey seals in the innundated Lifeboat Station garden, photo by Richard Porter

But most important of all, what of the wildlife that makes these places so vital and important? This is a story of the amazing powers of nature to recover. The resilience of species to survive. The grey seals on Blakeney Point are testament to this. The storm surge hit at the worst possible time, the height of the breeding season with young seal pubs unweaned, and completely dependent on their mother’s milk. Wardens feared the worst. Surely most of these seals, just weeks old, would have been washed far away and separated from their mothers. Amazingly last winter was the most successful breeding season for grey seals in the history of this nature reserve. To me this remains almost incredible. Did the seals with some sense unknown to us mere humans somehow know to move their pups to the highest part of Blakeney’s dunes before the storm surge hit? Whatever the reason nearly all the pups survived.

As you will see in the Fusion show nature is resilient. If you visit the shingle ridge at Cley Marshes today you will see this process of recovery; yellow-horned poppies already colonising areas of raw shingle pushed inland by the surge. New life flowering in an evolving landscape. Come along to Fusion in the Forum. It’s free admission and open every day from Monday 1 September until Saturday 6 Saturday from 10am to 4pm and see for yourself the beauty and power of nature at these ever-changing but always wonderful nature reserves. See how Norfolk Wildlife Trust and National Trust continue to keep these places special for our wildlife and special for visitors to enjoy.

Saturday, 23 August 2014

Bartsia, mint and a combing bee

Chris Durdin, NWT Thorpe Marshes

Many of the late summer flowers of NWT Thorpe Marshes are pink and purple, such as hemp agrimony, purple loosestrife and marsh woundwort. Those three are big and showy, but the pictures here show two similarly coloured but smaller species.

Red bartsia
Red bartsia is a real oddity – a plant of bare ground, rather than marshes. Here it grows on the edge of the path and is far from showy: overlooked rather than scarce. It’s semi-parasitic, gaining extra nutrients by tapping into the roots of grasses.

Water mint is better known, and as the name suggests grows in ditches or on their edges. Squeeze a leaf, sniff and it’s obviously a mint. The flowers are in pretty, round heads, and this one has attracted a common carder bee.

Many bee species are horribly similar but the red-brown back and stripy tail end makes this fairly distinctive. Why ‘carder’ bee? Carding is the process of combing and cleaning fibres, such as prior to spinning wool, or raising the nap of woven wool. Apparently the bees use combs on their legs to do this to moss and grass for their nests, though I can’t claim to have witnessed the process.

Water mint with common carder bee
As an aside, the word carding is sometimes said to derive from Carduus for the teasels once used to comb wool. This at first pleasing etymological nugget rather falls apart as Carduus is actually a genus of thistle – teasels are Dipsacus. Teasel heads mounted on a stiff, flat structure make a card for carding, which is some way removed from the stiff paper we call card.

More wildlife news and details of monthly walks on

Friday, 15 August 2014

Wetland creation sites are just like buses

 Nick Carter, Conservation Officer (Fens)

You wait ages for one to come along and then two arrive at the same time! Construction works at the two new reed beds at Hilgay and Potter Heigham are now finished. The abstraction system at Hilgay, from the River Wissey, was finally installed, tested and shown to be leak-free. At the Potter site the water control structures to allow water from Hickling Broad onto the site was installed.

Although these important milestones have been reached the work is only really just starting. Diggers from William Morfoot Ltd are on site at Potter to create pools to act as fish refuges and feeding sites for the bitterns that will hopefully take up residence on the site. These will closely be followed by reed planters coming in to plant up the edges of these pools and to re-stock some of the caged areas that were planted last year but where the reed plugs did not grow.  

At Hilgay the site will be wetted up over the winter to encourage survival of the reeds that were planted last year and to aid their spread across the site. It will take several years however for the site to be completely filled with water and even longer for the reed beds to develop.

Bulldozer stripping the top soil at Methwold
Next door to the Hilgay site construction work has just started on the Methwold site with Fen Group’s bulldozer working to strip top soil prior to the excavation of new ditches and the construction of the perimeter bund. Work will stop at the end of the autumn to preserve the soil structure and it is hoped that all the work will be completed by next summer. This will allow reed planting to be carried out prior to the site being wetted up, with the water coming from Hilgay.

Tuesday, 5 August 2014

Spectacular starfish

Rachael Wright, Seasonal Education Officer

As part of national marine week we have been hosting a whole range of marine events including, rockpooling at West Runton, sea dipping at NWT Holme Dunes, and species sketching and guided walks at NWT Cley Marshes.

One of the events at Cley Marshes last weekend was Coastal Creations. We started off by exploring the strandline along the shingle beach to see what creatures from our underwater world the waves had washed in. It’s great to take the time to look between, or on the seaweed in the strandline to discover a variety of treasures. There were plenty of cockle shells, dog whelk egg cases, skate egg cases, hornwrack and crabs legs. We sat down to share our finds and learn about these fascinating creatures.

Inspired by what they had seen the children made their own sea creatures on the beach. Initially a shingle beach appears quite a difficult place to make art compared to the sand sculptures we are often more used to creating. But the children made some great creatures using different coloured pebbles. After a bit of practice we all grouped together to make a giant starfish. 

Making beach art is a great activity to do with the family, no resources or equipment is needed and it’s environmentally friendly. The giant starfish we created is high above the strandline, and will hopefully be there for a while, for visitors to enjoy. If you’re visiting Cley, then take a trip to the beach to have a look, and maybe have a go yourself.

This summer is the summer of starfish and we are encouraging children to show their support for the protection of our seas by sending a starfish pledge to David Cameron. This is a great opportunity for children to be involved in marine conservation and help to make a real difference to the health of our seas. You can download your own starfish or come along to one of our events where we will be completing starfish and we may even be lucky enough to see some starfish in their natural habitat. 

Monday, 4 August 2014

August species of the month: the spoonbill

Ed Parnell of Norfolk Wildlife Trust
One of the most spectacular birds that visitors to the north Norfolk coast might just spot this summer, is also our most recent avian colonist. Similar in build to a grey heron, though slightly smaller, the spoonbill’s plumage is completely white, except in the breeding season when adults show a small patch of yellowish feathers on their chest. At this time of year mature birds also have a rather fetching, shaggy crest at the back of their head. But by far their most noticeable feature is the one for which they are named – that enormous, spatula-like bill.
Spoonbill by Pat Wileman
Spoonbills generally feed in flocks, swinging their heads from side to side through shallow pools of water. This is where the remarkable bill comes into its own: held slightly open it is packed full of sensors that detect minute vibrations and, once located, unlucky beetles, crustaceans, worms, small fish – even tadpoles and frogs – stand no chance of escape.
Although they bred in East Anglia during medieval times, spoonbills had not bred in Norfolk for over 300 years until, in 2010, a colony was discovered at Holkham marshes, where six pairs raised ten chicks. Conservationists crossed their fingers that the birds (originating from the Netherlands) would return again in 2011, which, gratifyingly, is what happened; eight pairs bred, successfully fledging 14 young.
Because the birds are easily disturbed it’s not possible for visitors to view the colony at Holkham. However, this isn’t a problem as the spoonbills (including a large number of non-breeding individuals) feed in sizeable flocks along the coast. The best site is probably Norfolk Wildlife Trust’s Cley Marshes, where a record flock of 25 birds was recorded in 2010. Here the shallow pools and scrapes are an ideal place for the birds to feed, and they can often be watched at close-quarters from the comfort of numerous viewing hides.
Spoonbills flying, photo by Brian Macfarlane
One final word of caution: to see that famous bill you may well have to be patient. Spoonbills are notorious for spending large amounts of time asleep, their heads tucked frustratingly under a wing – the first view many birdwatchers have of the species is of a rather undistinguished group of white lumps sat on a muddy spit! Later in the day is often a good time to catch them being more active (they’re actually partly nocturnal), swinging their heads in characteristic, almost synchronised fashion.
As well as offering a great chance of seeing spoonbills, NWT Cley Marshes is also a great place to see all sorts of other wading birds and ducks at this time of the year, including the chance of rare visitors from America and Europe. And to celebrate National Marine Week in August (so good it lasts a fortnight!), a number of special events for families and children will be held at the reserve. Entrance to the award-winnning visitor centre and cafe is free, though there is a small charge for adult non-NWT members to access the bird hides. The reserve is just east of Cley next the Sea village on the A149 coast road towards Sheringham.