Natural evolution? The tidal surge in north Norfolk

Published on 11 January 2014 in News and comment

Richard Porter

On the night of Thursday 5th December 2013, a tidal surge in the North Sea, coupled with exceptionally high tides and gale-force winds, ripped the ecological guts out of many of the famous wildlife reserves in north Norfolk. Near my home, Blakeney Point, the Blakeney Freshes, Cley Marshes reserve and grazing marshes between Cley and Salthouse were all seriously damaged and flooded, including Pope’s Marsh (which the Norfolk Wildlife Trust had recently acquired following a million-pound appeal that BB supported).

Will the seawater inundation of the freshwater grazing marshes and reedbeds be one of the big ecological disasters to hit north Norfolk in recent years? Or just a damp squib? How does it compare, for example, with the insidious pollution caused by agricultural pesticides, which have seriously affected the populations of many of our farmland birds? Nature has a wonderful way of healing, in the absence of pollution, albeit over time. Will birdwatchers be visiting an ecologically very different north Norfolk in future?

Over the days following the surge, I took photographs, and some of these are included here with extended captions to give my personal slant on the event – as far as it affected the Blakeney-Cley-Salthouse stretch – and some thoughts and hopes for the future.

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Cley Marshes reserve, 6th December 2013. Although the reserve was completely flooded, the large, well-maintained sluice was highly efficient at getting water off the site quickly. Now, the freshwater springs will have to work hard to get the reserve back to a freshwater grazing marsh complete with scrapes. Much too will depend on the breach to the shingle bank being repaired and maintained, otherwise there could be regular saltwater inundation. Sadly the hides were all damaged; the Swarovski hide (North hide) was totally destroyed and is now in pieces 5 km down the coast at Kelling, along with sections of the boardwalk. My personal view is that the Cley reserve, including Pope’s Marsh will be ‘back to normal’ within a couple of years. Further east, the dramatic breach at Salthouse has created a deep, wide channel from sea to marsh. If not repaired, this will remain tidal.

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The shattered hides at Cley Marshes reserve, 6 December 2013.

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One of the beaches in the West Bank at Cley, 6 December 2013.

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Blakeney Freshes When several hundred metres of the Blakeney floodbank breached, the tidal surge rushed to fill the Freshes – a large area of freshwater grazing marsh that has a good population of breeding Northern Lapwings Vanellus vanellus, Common Redshanks Tringa totanus and Skylarks Alauda arvensis as well as pairs of Avocets Recurvirostra avosetta and Marsh Harriers Circus aeruginosus; in winter it is an important feeding area for Pink-footed Anser brachyrhynchus and Brent Geese Branta bernicla and Eurasian Wigeons Anas penelope. Unlike at Cley, the sluices were not up to the job of emptying the saltwater quickly and (at the time of writing) it has barely drained away. Unless the Environment Agency repairs the floodbank, it could become a tidal saltmarsh. The flooding of such an important freshwater grazing marsh could bring about the greatest long-term ecological change of the tidal surge as well as affecting the livelihoods of the graziers.

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Blakeney Freshes, completely under water, 6th December 2013. 

The National Trust rangers inspect the damage to the Blakeney Freshes, 6 December 2013, RFP. 6323

The National Trust rangers head out to inspect the damage at Blakeney Freshes, 6 December 2013.

Blakeney Point. Surprisingly most of the Grey Seal Halichoerus grypus pups in the important rookery at the Point survived. Over 1,200 were counted the day after the surge and it may even turn out to be a record year, although some of the pups were displaced. The dunes were thoroughly ‘scoured’ by the surge, but the Sandwich Tern Sterna sandvicensis breeding areas on Far Point may even have been improved through the opening up of vegetated areas. The greatest short-term problem is the deep smothering by shingle of the Suaeda and other vegetation on the shingle ridge, rendering it a barren landscape. This is an important breeding area for Oystercatchers Haematopus ostralegus, Ringed Plovers Charadrius hiaticula and especially Little Terns Sternula albifrons and it may be necessary to provide boxes, pipes and other shelters for their chicks, should the adults return to nest at a site that looks so different from the one they left at the end of the last breeding season.

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Three quarters of the suaeda and other vegetation on the shingle ridge at Blakeney Point was destroyed; 9 December 2013.

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The shattered beach at Cley, December 2013.

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Inundation by sand on Blakeney Point, 9 December 2013.

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The dunes took a hammering, Blakeney Point, 9th December 2013.

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Grey Seals Halichoerus grypus and pups in the inundated Lifeboat Station garden; 9th December 2013.

Richard has told us about Cley and Blakeney. What about other parts of the east coast that were affected? We’re keen to hear your story.

Latest pics from north Norfolk, from the air, show (first) Salthouse ‘and its new river mouth’ – the grazing marshes are inundated with saltwater now every time the tide comes through the new breaches in the shingle banks. And, below that, the still-flooded Blakeney Freshes, again from the air. Pics by Mike Page (http://www.mike-page.co.uk/) via the website of the Eastern Daily Press.

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And more pictures and thoughts from Richard Porter:

Below are three pictures of the Pope’s Marsh (Cley) – Salthouse marshes on a high tide in early January, a month after the tidal surge. Contrary to my account in BB  there are two (not one) breaches and they are certainly serious. The incoming tides have worked at the weaknesses in the shingle bank and the outflowing water has added its power to the scouring, so that deep and wide ‘estuaries’ are forming. The resulting saline incursions are extensive over the grazing marsh. I discussed this with Steve Harris, a former Norfolk County Council ecologist and highly respected for his local wildlife knowledge and history. He believes that if the breaches are not fixed then the area from the East Bank to Salthouse will become saltmarsh or even mudflats. I have to agree with him.

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