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.

Tuesday, 28 January 2014

Water, water everywhere

The importance of protecting fresh water habitats on the North Norfolk coast

David North, Head of People and Wildlife

Water is vital for people and wildlife but as anyone who has swallowed a mouthful of seawater will know there’s a big difference between salt water and fresh water and it will come as no big surprise that the two are not interchangeable for people or for wildlife.

Aerial photo after the floods, Mike Page

Following the storm surge in December 2013, which damaged sea walls along parts of the North Norfolk coast, flooded our nature reserves at Cley and Salthouse Marshes, and breached the shingle ridge in two places between Cley and Salthouse, there is now heated discussion as to the importance of repairing sea defences simply to protect wildlife. So what are the freshwater habitats and do they really matter? If large areas of freshwater habitats at nature reserves such as Blakeney Freshes, Cley Marshes and Salthouse were regularly flooded by the sea what difference would this really make?

The stunning diversity of wildlife found along the North Norfolk coast and recognised as internationally important in the confusing maze of designations: from SSSI to Ramsar site, from National Nature Reserve to Special Protections Areas, from AONB to SAC, clearly is pretty special. Our North Norfolk coast wildlife sites have a lot of letters after their famous place names, and places like NWT Cley Marshes and NT Blakeney Point with their unique histories, unique landscapes and stunning wildlife are truly areas Norfolk can be very proud of. They are well known across Britain and beyond, much loved and also attract many visitors from near and far.

Marsh Harrier and Avocets, photo by Steve Bond

The reason that these areas, and the whole North Norfolk coast, is so good for wildlife lies in its diversity of habitats – freshwater, brackish, salt and marine. Lose the diversity of water types and you lose some of the amazing richness of wildlife. This is why the potential permanent loss of freshwater habitats following the December storm surge matters. If you are a freshwater fish this is a matter of life and death. But people should care about this too. Local tourism benefits hugely from the visitors who come to marvel at North Norfolk’s wildlife. They come in winter for our wonderful skeins of geese. They come in in summer to watch elegant breeding avocets and the magnificent aerial displays of marsh harriers. They come in spring and autumn for a chance to spot rare migratory species. All this is also great if you are a North Norfolk business, a hotel, B&B, a pub or a food shop. Great for the local economy and the loss of any of this wildlife diversity will impact on people too.

But won’t it all be just as good without the freshwater? And what are these special habitats that rely on keeping the sea out?

Freshwater habitats

Fresh water pools and grazing marsh, photo by Barry Madden

Protected areas such as Cley and Salthouse Marshes have three habitats completely dependent on freshwater: the cattle-grazed marshes with their network of freshwater dykes; the reedbeds; and the freshwater pools (many originate as shooting pools, others scraped out on nature reserves to encourage breeding and migratory species).

Lapwing, photo by Maurice Funell
The list of wildlife dependent on these coastal freshwater habitats is extensive. Birds such as migratory wigeon and brent geese from Russia and pink-footed geese from Iceland feed during the winter extensively on grass. And grass doesn’t grow in salt-water! In summer the freshwater marshes are a stronghold for species declining elsewhere, for example the attractive black and white lapwings with their tumbling spring displays. The freshwater dykes which edge these North Norfolk grazing marshes support a host of water insects which can only survive in fresh-water: from ‘whirligig’ diving beetles to water boatmen and many species of freshwater fish, from minnows to pike and even the now endangered European eel.

Freshwater reedbeds support huge numbers of insects from showy dragon and damselflies to myriads of tiny flying insects. That why so many birds come to them in spring – swallows and swifts feed over the reedbeds and water rails, bearded tits, marsh harriers and even the rare bittern nest within them. Without the freshwater insects these reedbeds would not be alive with reed and sedge warblers each summer or the sound of the cuckoo which feeds on moth caterpillars found in the reedbeds. Our reedbeds can survive occasional floods of sea-water quite well but their ecology would be very different and much less diverse if this became permanent.

The freshwater pools on our coastal marshes attract ducks in winter – pintail, gadwall, teal, mallard, shoveler among them. In spring and autumn the muddy edges of these freshwater pools are where waders such as sandpipers, black tailed godwits and snipe come to feed along with rarer species which delight the many birders who come to the hides that over-look these pools.

Saltwater habitats

Salt water habitats are important too of course. These include tidal salt marshes, saline lagoons (saltier than the sea), and tidal mudflats and sandy foreshores.

Sea lavender, Stiffkey saltmarshes, photo by Denise Emmerson
There are species which are only found in this salty, tidal world which constantly changes with wind and tide. These include wonderfully salt adapted and highly specialised plants. The sea lavenders which turn our coastal marshes purple in July and August. A whole range of specialised salt marsh plants; sea aster, samphire, sea purslane, sea beet, colourful pink thrift, bushes of shrubby seablite, spiky cord grass forming complex and fascinating high, mid and low marsh communities, each species adapted to withstand different periods covered by the sea. In that rarest of coastal habitats, the saline lagoons, endangered species such as starlet sea anemone and rare shrimps make their precarious homes. Saltmarsh tidal creeks form valuable nursery grounds for marine fish’ including plaice, flounder and mullet, as well as a habitat for numerous shore crabs, shrimps, marine worms and snails which in turn are food for gulls, terns, egrets, and herons.

In summary the richness of our coastal nature reserves depends on both fresh and salt water habitats and the interplay between the two. Many species will use both habitat types but will be dependent at critical times on just one – geese feeding on the freshwater grasses but roosting on sands and salt marsh protected by the tides is just one example. The balance between salt and fresh water changes daily with the tides, monthly with rainfall and changing seasons, and over much longer periods is also changed by both human activity such as sea defences and natural events including storm surges. However we need both fresh and salt water habitats if we are too keep the present diversity of wildlife that we love so much. And protecting that diversity is something worth fighting for.

Species photos submitted by members of the public to NWT's online wildlife gallery.

Friday, 24 January 2014

A starling murmuration

Eilish Rothney, Trinity Broads Warden

A swirling shoal, silhouetted against a crimson sky. A swarm, filling the sky as they came closer, their chattering as gentle as rain and then silence as they moved off down the broad only to return moments later. Who knows the unheard signals that bond these small birds to turn at once spiralling up then dropping, changing direction in an instant. 

I watched the starling murmuration over Rollesby Broad for over half an hour, captivated by their dance, entranced by the motion. Other smaller flocks arrived to be joyfully assimilated into the whole. I tried counting – there must have been close to 700, small by winter roost standards but with numbers of starlings declining these sights are getting more and more precious.

Rollesby Broad is part of the Trinity Broads, one of the newest reserves managed by Norfolk Wildlife Trust, a partnership with Essex and Suffolk Water. To view Rollesby Broad there is a car park on the Ormesby St Michael side of the Bridge on A149 (Nearest post code: NR29 5EF).

Tuesday, 21 January 2014

Wake up to birdsong

David North, Head of People and Wildlife

Song thrush, photo by Alan Price
Do you have difficulty getting out of bed on these cold, dark winter mornings? Well it may be cold and grey but I’m sure you’ve noticed that its getting just a bit lighter each morning and with the lengthening days comes a natural wonder worth celebrating – bird song. I may still be struggling out of bed in the dark but now there’s a song thrush singing when it’s still pretty much night, at least to my sleepy eyes at 6am. The merest hint of a lightening in the eastern sky and the full-throated voice of a male song thrush – the sound of life, pure notes each repeated two or three times, is a clear sign that a new day is dawning. In my rural garden he is the first bird to greet the morning. What a lust for life. What passion. While I’m still half-awake, cleaning my teeth, he is singing his heart out, staking his claim to life, to territory, and reminding me that the dance of a New Year is there to be joined.

In my nearest wood the snowdrops have already pushed their way through leaf litter up into the light. Most are still small, sharp white spikes, unfurled, slowly swelling, but a few are already open, white flowers dangling, each with its inner script of green markings. 

Snowdrops, photo by Neville Yardy
 Above them yellow ‘lambs’ tail’ catkins of hazel are hanging pendulous, swaying in the winter wind and just waiting for a touch of sun to release their individual dust-clouds of yellow pollen. Next time I visit I must look more closely to see if any of the red star-like female hazel flowers, tiny but exquisite, have appeared. In the early morning great tits make voice with piercing disyllabic ‘teacher, teacher, teacher’ calls, though each male has a subtle variation on this theme. Robins are singing their quiet, sweet songs from song perches high in branches above me, a trickle of notes like water running over stones. Dunnocks are also beginning to provide an unassuming background of quiet but rapid warbling from the undergrowth – often singing from ground level and never loud, strident and repetitive like the great tits.

Today in Norwich I heard my first chaffinch of the year sing, hesitant as if not quite sure of its voice yet. On Castle Mound, in the heart of the city, collared doves were ‘coola cooing’. The doves have been at it all year of course but now there’s just a bit more verve and passion about their coos.
Jackdaw, photo by Dave Kilbey
There are other signs of activity to look for in the natural world – rooks are rebuilding nests and busy raucously complaining about stolen twigs and noisy neighbours in their highly social worlds. On my local village green there’s a glint in jackdaws eyes (yes, I know they always glint a bit) but it could be love as they all seem to be in twos and that pair on the chimney pot are attentively grooming each other’s neck feathers. Wood pigeons in my garden are like-wise sidling up along the bare apple tree branches, to end up as pairs, and with apparent affection indulging in a spot of mutual preening.

You don’t have to travel anywhere special to see these signs that the world’s still turning. The season quietly moving forward in the up-thrust of a daffodil here and a woodpecker’s drumming there. In the first crazy chase of a hare in my local fields, now greening with winter sown barley, or the simple fluty voice of a blackbird in your garden.

Open your ears and enjoy the sound of nature waking up to new beginnings in a new year.

Friday, 10 January 2014

NWT Upton Broad & Marshes: Birdlife October to December

Nigel Robson, Volunteer Bird Recorder for NWT and Mark Crossfield, NWT assistant warden for Bure and Ant

In October, major conservation work to all the grazing marshes was resumed and completed at NWT Upton Broad and Marshes by the end of 2013. The network of foot drains - long narrow lines of shallow water snaking across the grassland delivering fresh water from the existing system. With increased water levels the landscape transformed into a wetland attracting wintering wildfowl. The combination of flashes of open water, inundated grassland, shallow foot drains and dykes with gently-sloped edges is the culmination of long-term management objectives. The number of birds feeding on the grazing marshes continues to increase.

In recent winters, pink-footed geese have rarely settled on the marshes, despite large numbers roaming between arable fields in the area. November saw small groups for the first time visit consistently, and by the second half of December, over 1,000 could be seen grazing the very wet Boat Dyke marshes. The relatively close proximity of groups of walkers, many with dogs, using the river bank path did not disturb the feeding geese. This area also attracted good numbers of lapwings, frequently around 500. Over the marshes as a whole, plus the lands immediately across the river, over 2,500 had accumulated by the year end. Other groups of waders on the wet marshes were black-tailed godwits (max. 22 on 20 Dec), ruffs (max. 20 on 27 Dec) and golden plovers (max. 90 on 29 Dec).
During daylight hours very few duck had been present on either the marshes or the river lagoons since mid-November (up to 18 shovelers were at the lagoons prior to that). Usually there were no more than a few teals and mallards and a pair of gadwalls despite some 350 wigeons on neighbouring marshes.  Through monitoring g we have discovered that during darkness, the situation is quite different. The wet marshes were invaded by a variety of species, best identified by their frequent calling. During December nights, these included wigeon, teal, mallard, greylag, Canada, Egyptian and pink-footed geese, lapwing, golden plover, snipe and woodcock. Through night-vision optics, birds were seen distributed over the entire marshes.

The corvid roost in the wet woodland at the Doles continued to comprise several thousand Rooks and Jackdaws. Although  an extensive area of this woodland had been removed during the last two winters to reclaim fen, the roosting birds merely re-located to adjacent stands. Another evening and early morning spectacle was the flight of the Cormorants en route between the coast and their roosting trees beside NWT Ranworth Broad. 704 were counted at first light in mid December.

Increasingly cranes have featured in winter. Throughout October and November, a group active in the Bure Valley concentrated at the reserve and St Benet’s Level (there utilising ploughed land). Their number varied, usually 12 to 25, with a maximum 34 on 16 October. Rather fewer were seen in December.

The marsh hedgerows provided an abundance of berries, which drew variable numbers of winter thrushes. A peak of 550 fieldfares arrived around 23 December and foraged in the hedgerows and on the wet grassland. A small number of bullfinches were, as usual at this time, located in these hedgerows.

Also wintering in and around the reserve were two redshanks, a peregrine (two in mid December), barn owls, marsh harriers, a hen harrier and a buzzard. A snow bunting was beside the river on 10 November, the same day that 12 whooper swans flew across the reserve and landed briefly on St Benet’s Level. Three dunlin were on the marshes on 14 November and a curlew on the 16th. A small number of bearded tits stayed concealed in riverside reedswamp, occasionally venturing into reed-fringed dykes. A drake goosander on the river lagoons on 14 December was an unusual visitor.
Over the last few years, several habitats in the reserve have been subjected to extensive modifications. The river bank was raised and in places re-positioned, the river lagoons were created, the grazing marshes and dykes configured to allow control over higher water levels and permanent water bodies, the reed bed adjusted with more open areas and deeper water to suit bitterns, scrub and carr woodland reduced to increase the extent of herbaceous fen, and Little Broad mud-pumped to improve its aquatic diversity. Permissive paths have been extended and widened to afford visitors greater opportunities to access all sections of the reserve. Over the next few seasons gradual changes in the vegetation are expected where these major interventions have occurred, and it should be an exciting time for the naturalist to observe how the flora and fauna responds.

Saturday, 4 January 2014

Arctic adventurers: the snow bunting

Ed Parnell, Norfolk Wildlife Trust

As well as the thousands of Arctic ducks, geese, wading birds and seabirds that spend each winter around the Norfolk coastline, the county also becomes a second home for the world’s most northerly songbird: the snow bunting.

Snow bunting, photo by Steve Bond
Barely bigger than a sparrow and with predominantly white plumage, mixed with patches of warm brown and chestnut, the snow bunting is an attractive bird. Despite this, the species can be hard to pick out as it feeds among the shingle – its plumage makes perfect camouflage, moulding into the Norfolk winter landscape. Only when disturbed into a dazzle of whirling black and white wings, accompanied by a soft, trilling chatter, does the flock reveal its whereabouts.

Snow buntings visit the UK’s coastline in small numbers each winter, with around a thousand individuals settling on the beaches of Norfolk between November and March. In summer they return north to their breeding grounds – the species is found right around the top of the globe including Greenland, Iceland, Arctic Scandinavia, Svalbard, Siberia and North America: remarkably a single bird was even observed at the North Pole in 1987, one of only three bird species to ever be recorded on that barren sea of ice. All this highlights the species’ hardiness and why it seems so at home on the windswept, tundra-like shingle of the Norfolk Coast. Not all snow buntings breed quite so far north however. Each year a few pairs nest in the Scottish Cairngorms, where they become even more striking in appearance as the males lose all traces of brown from their plumage and turn completely black and white.

Snow bunting, photo by Dave Kilbey
So where are the best places in the county to catch up with this charismatic little bird? The beaches around Caister, Winterton and Holkham can be good, as well as NWT Cley Marshes, where lots of other avian Arctic visitors will be in residence. However, arguably the easiest site is the shingle of NWT Salthouse Marshes, just east of the beach car park. Here a small flock of snow buntings is present most winters – usually along with a small flock of birdwatchers! Photographers at the site sometimes put down seed to attract the birds closer, meaning that fantastic views can often be had. If you are lucky enough to get a good look at one of these sociable little birds, you might notice a tiny coloured plastic ring around its leg – for a number of years ornithologists have been catching the birds and marking them to study where they go each summer – it transpires our intrepid Norfolk snow buntings are a mixture of Scandinavian, Greenland and Icelandic birds.

Friday, 3 January 2014

Cley Marshes new year update

Cley Marshes in December 2013, photo by Jonathan Forgham
Norfolk Wildlife Trust would like to give special thanks to all the volunteers who gave up their time in the busy run-up to Christmas to help out in the initial clear up at Cley and Salthouse  following the storm surge. Their hard work and support has enabled the opening of the Bishops Hide and access path from the East bank through to Cley village and ensured visitors could access the reserve through the Christmas and New Year period.  Access to the reserve would not have been possible without the impressive turn out and dedication of volunteers and staff for which Norfolk Wildlife Trust is extremely grateful.

The Visitor Centre remains open as usual and fully accessible. We have reduced our admission fee to £2 as a result but please consider matching that fee with a £2 donation. Your donation will be used to fund the repairs to Cley Marshes, which include repairs to boardwalks, hides, and paths. Currently we estimate our repairs will cost up to £100,000.

The New Year will see us look to working on the main block of hides however this is going to take much longer because the structural part of the boardwalk to them has been severely damage. We apologise for any inconvenience this may cause visitors and appreciate your patience and understanding.

Norfolk Wildlife Trust is extremely concerned about the breaches in the shingle bank as sea water continues to enter the reserve’s freshwater marshes on high tides.  We are  working with both the Environment Agency and Natural England to agree a schedule for the EA to carry out the necessary repairs.

For all the updates: