Is part of Norfolk’s coastline about to be abandoned to the sea?
Archant Norfolk 2013
Parts of north Norfolk’s coastline could be permanently sacrificed to the sea following the tidal surges which battered the East Coast last month.
The Environment Agency boss revealed yesterday that he is weighing up whether to reinstate flood defences in Brancaster, Blakeney and Salthouse, after they were breached last month.
Paul Leinster, who was hauled before a committee of MPs following the prolonged winter floods, said his agency is questioning whether or not to try to re-establish freshwater habitats, or let the sea water through permanently.
Some conservationists claim it would be a disaster to lose the freshwater environment, where birds which flock each year to breed attract thousands of tourists.
Richard Porter, a professional ornithologist and conservationist from Cley, said: “I think leaving things and letting nature take its course, from a bird conservation point of view and for the conservation of other wildlife, would not be very sensible.”
Blakeney nature reserve features a unique mix of salt marsh, mudflats and freshwater marsh nestling around the area’s famous spit.
The differing habitats host their own diverse range of special wildlife.
Blakeney Point, within the reserve, is a four-mile-long sand and shingle spit.
Sand dunes have formed over hundreds of years on the shingle ridge and provide a rare habitat valuable for unusual plants, insects, birds and seals.
The area is an internationally-important breeding area for seabirds, and home to a colony of common and grey seals.
The National Trust says: “The saltmarsh, mudflats, sand dunes and shingle ridge are all in a constant state of flux, adapting to the forces of nature shaping this ever changing coastline.”
The sea surge caused major damage in the area including to infrastructure used by visitors. Boardwalks, buildings and bridges are undergoing repairs, and the Lifeboat House and toilet facilities on Blakeney Point are closed until April.
Seal trip ferry boats are running as normal from Morston Quay.
The Scolt Head Island National Nature Reserve, near Brancaster, is home to saltmarshes considered to be among the finest in the UK.
The island supports nationally and internationally important numbers of breeding terns (sandwich, common, arctic and little) and wintering wildfowl, and waders such as Brent geese, shelduck, wigeon, teal and curlew.
The plant communities of the dunes and saltmarshes are classic examples of their type.
Vegetated shingle “lows” contain plant species of national importance such as matted sea lavender and sea heath.
The reserve covers an area of some 727 hectares of sand dune, beach and saltmarsh, which is owned jointly by the National Trust and Norfolk Wildlife Trust, and has been a nature reserve since 1923. It is managed by Natural England.
Brancaster is also home to the National Trust-owned Brancaster Activity Centre, which was hit by the floods on December 5.
The toilets at Brancaster beach were also badly damaged by the tidal flooding and are expected to remain closed to all visitors until April during refurbishment works.
Cley Marshes between Cley and Salthouse is Norfolk Wildlife Trust’s (NWT) oldest and best known nature reserve.
It was purchased in 1926 by Dr Sydney Long, founder of NWT, making it the first wildlife trust reserve in the country.
It is one of Britain’s best nature reserves for bird watching because the many pools and scrapes attract thousands of birds.
The site is unusual because of its variety of habitats on the saltwater and freshwater marshes.
Scrape pools are used widely by breeding and migratory birds.
The shingle bank is home to unusual plants including the yellow-horned poppy.
The shingle beach and saline lagoons, along with the grazing marsh and reedbed, support large numbers of wintering and migrating wildfowl and waders as well as bittern, marsh harrier and bearded tit.
During the spring the pools fill with wading birds including the spotted redshank on their way to Arctic breeding grounds. Sedge, reed and grasshopper warblers can be seen in the reedbeds. The Cley Marshes is one of only a handful of sites in Britain with breeding bittern at this time of year.
Birds including the white and black-feathered avocet breed on the marshes in the summer. Throughout August and September waders return to the site and feed on insects and worms in the pools before continuing their southward journey.
As winter approaches large numbers of wildfowl including wigeon, teal, shoveler, and pintail gather. The shingle bank is popular with flocks of goldfinch or linnet during this time.
The new Cley Marshes Visitors Centre opened in summer 2007.
A spokesman for the RSPB said: “The storms have had damaging effects for local people, wildlife and nature reserves along the Norfolk and Suffolk coastline. Sadly, as climate change predicts sea levels to rise, these types of events will become much more severe in future years.
“We need to plan to minimise these impacts, but there also lies an opportunity to work with natural processes to create sustainable defences and new wildlife habitats.
“The creation of new salt marshes and nature reserves can work with natural processes, absorbing large volumes of water as well as bearing the brunt of the tidal surges. They also have the advantage of being able to adapt to sea level rise and are comparatively cheap.
“We will all need to work together to consider the options and it will be fundamental to recognise the vital role nature can play in protecting our coastline and the people who live there.
“Where freshwater habitats may be lost to future storm surge events, the RSPB, along with others, is stepping up its efforts to create new freshwater nature reserves inland to ensure the wildlife dependent on habitats like these is not lost forever.”
The Environment Agency has employed an independent consultant to explore all options available. The organisation will receive the report next month and will discuss it with partners and those affected when considering their options for the North Norfolk coast.
They could not provide further details last night of the exact areas which could be under threat.
Mark Johnson, coastal manager for the Environment Agency, said: “Last month’s combination of strong winds, large waves and high tides led to a record tidal surge along many parts of the coast.
“This had a large impact on areas along the north Norfolk coast that needs thorough evaluation before any decisions are made. We have already employed Halcrow as consultants to review the situation in Brancaster, Blakeney and Salthouse.
“We are expecting their report next month. The report and discussions with our partners and those affected will help us to consider our options for the north Norfolk coast.”
Mr Leinster told the committee that some flood defences were still under water, but went on to say: “In other places we will have discussions with Natural England and others as to whether we are going to reinstate those flood defences, or whether we will allow the water that has now broken through to remain.”
He added: “The question has to be, do we reinstate those defences and then allow freshwater habitat to re-establish, or allow inter-tidal habitat to establish?”
He added that he wanted to assure the committee that property and people were being protected, and the Environment Agency had carried out all the temporary work needed.
John Sizer, general manager for the National Trust in north Norfolk, which looks after beauty spots from Brancaster to Blakeney, said: “We’re in fairly regular contact with Natural England and the Environment Agency about the strategic direction they’re [taking] and also [have] some very specific questions and concerns that we’re putting to them.”
Chris Starkie, managing director of the New Anglia Local Enterprise Partnership, said: “We will be seeking urgent clarification from the Environment Agency regarding the reinstatement of flood defences to understand their plans and to seek reassurances that any proposals will take into account the impact on the coastal economy.”
David Thompson, head of Visit North Norfolk, said he could sympathise with the EA’s stance over leaving the breaches, but equally had concerns if it was to cause major environmental impact and thought a balance needed to be struck.
Denise Burke, Labour’s parliamentary candidate for North Norfolk, said: “This is outrageous. The residents of Blakeney, Salthouse and nearby will rightly be very worried – and where will be next?
“We expect all the defences damaged by the recent tidal surge to be not just reinstated but also improved.”