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.


  1. How are the little saline lagoon specialist species such as the Starlet sea anemone and Lagoon sand shrimp faring at Cley after the flooding?

    Best wishes

    Matt Shardlow

    1. Matt,

      Good to hear from you. Starlet sea anemones are at least still present in some of the saline lagoons between Cley and Salthouse. Some lagoons like Half Moon near Cley Beach car park have gone - buried under shingle.
      There are new saline lagoons and will be interesting to see if Starlets colonnise them. I don't know about the Lagoon Sand Shrimp but NE will be doing some saline lagoon monitoring shortly to look for these specialists.

      Hope all is well with you. Is it true that invert populations globally have declined by 40% since the 1970s - I read it in a newspaper. Sounded dodgy but worrying if true.

    2. Hi Matt, reply from our Head of Nature Reserves: Initial sampling of lagoons after the storm surge has suggested that starlet sea anemone has fared ok and has actually managed to spread its range into new lagoons. More detailed sampling is planned for the lagoons and results from other wider research is imminent. Results will shed light on issues such as soil fauna impact and knock on effects to other species. NWT Cley and Salthouse has never had such a wide range and volume of sampling post any previous surge event so we will have a great deal of new information to analyse which will help us with future management.