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By STEVE DOWNES
Saturday, April 21, 2012
One of the polished medals on the lapel of Nelson’s County is about to hit 100 - but has a host of challenges to face as it embarks on its second century.
One hundred years ago in August, Blakeney Point became Norfolk’s first national nature reserve when it was handed to the National Trust by Edwardian philanthropists with a love of the natural world.
With its ton up, its wardens and managers are facing a trident of challenges - the annual increase in visitors, the impact of coastal erosion and the less certain side-effects of global warming.
In 1912, the Point was bought for £695, to save it from the property developers who were circling like ravenous birds of prey.
But what price would you put on Blakeney Point today?
The spectacular sand and shingle spit flicks out into the North Sea as it rests on the crown of Norfolk. And its cute curl adds a cow-lick of character to that head, which is already blessed with enviable beauty.
It is a rare example of somewhere that successfully balances sensitive conservation needs while catering for the curiosity of more than 100,000 visitors each year.
And it is easy to see why this magnificent magnet attracts so many people.
On its northern side, the moody sea laps or lashes at the shingle. And the view from the south of the Point is arguably unrivalled - a magical merger of marshes, coastal creeks, varied vessels and the distant dwellings of Morston and Blakeney, nestling in the cup of the land’s hand.
A dizzying 360-degree skyscape enables visitors to watch the rapidly-changing weather. The Point is one of those places that does justice to the phrase “four seasons in one day”, as warm sunshine can be swiftly elbowed aside by an aggressive cloudburst or a whipping wind that comes direct from the North Pole.
That beauty is equally a blessing and a curse for the Point, which is attracting an ever growing number of admirers.
And, as more people catch on to the idea of holidaying in Norfolk, the task of balancing access and conservation is becoming more challenging for the wardens and managers.
Graham Lubbock, a coastal warden who grew up at Cley and who has worked for the National Trust at Blakeney Point for 28 years, said he had seen changes.
“There’s far more people coming here than in the past. And it’s not so seasonal. If it’s a nice day in December, we’ll get visitors.
“We have to work hard to get right the balance between conservation and access.”
If anyone is tempted to take this timeless treasure for granted, they should know that it was the vision of one man, allied to the determination of the National Trust, that stopped it from being privately owned, with the risk of the bird populations being hunted to extinction.
In Victorian times, collecting bird’s eggs and the practice of taxidermy - or “trophy hunting” - were popular gentlemen’s pastimes. They also had a penchant for collecting the feathers of rare bird species to give to their wives to adorn their clothes.
Blakeney Point was one of a number of popular spots for the hunters and collectors on the Norfolk coast, and some cherished species were becoming endangered.
It also used to be visited by people on “Point Sundays” - the one day off each week, when hundreds of people would board a flotilla of small boats, towed by a large vessel, to relax at Blakeney Point.
The Point was owned at the turn of the 19th century by Lord Calthorpe, who had a large estate in the area.
In 1908, Professor Francis Oliver from University College London (UCL) was in the area to recuperate after a bout of pleurisy. He recognised the importance of Blakeney Point and, with Lord Calthorpe’s agreement, did various studies there - leading to the establishment of the first laboratory at the Point in 1910. The laboratory is still there, and is used by teams of undergraduates from UCL.
However, when Lord Calthorpe died soon afterwards, his estate was broken up. And various chunks were bought by property developer Alexander Crundall, with a view selling them on.
Prof Oliver was horrified, fearing that Blakeney Point could be developed - or overrun by the trophy hunters, triggering the demise of a host of precious birds.
He led a public appeal, drawing in many influential people and, with strong financial support from the banker and entomologist Charles Rothschild, Blakeney Point was bought from Mr Crundall for £695.
In August 1912, it was handed to the fledgling conservation body, the National Trust, to become Norfolk’s first nature reserve.
The tug-of-war between conservationists and wildfowlers was neatly summed up by the fact that the first warden at the Point was Bob Pinchen, from Cley, who was also a wildfowler.
The National Trust gave him a “you’re either for us or against us” ultimatum, and Mr Pinchen chose to put down his gun and protect the very birds that once were in his sights.
Iain Wolfe, National Trust visitor services manager for the north Norfolk coast, including Blakeney National Nature Reserve, said the purchase of Blakeney Point was a model that was followed at other beauty spots across the UK.
He said: “If the National Trust hadn’t taken over, the bird population would’ve been decimated.
“Before that, most people did not necessarily think about conservation. They had many other things on their minds. But the purchase of Blakeney Point was fundamental in setting the tone for the way things are done today.”
The Point used to be home to a large common seal colony. But in the late 1980s, the larger and more aggressive grey seals began to appear, driven by their need to give birth on land, rather than in the water, as the common seals can.
The first recorded grey seal pup was born on the Point in 2002. In 2011, there were 933, part of a burgeoning colony numbering a few thousand.
Those seals are a leading attraction, and thousands of visitors take boat trips to see them, organised for decades by the Temples and the Beans.
In the spring and summer, the Point turns into a ternery, with large, carefully-protected colonies of sandwich, little and common terns, plus a few arctic terns.
Their nesting areas are cordoned off and patrolled by wardens - with some success, as last year the Point hosted the largest tern colonies in Norfolk.
They are notoriously nervous birds, so there is a determined drive to keep visitors away from the cordoned-off ground-nesting sites. Dogs are banned from that part of the Point, too, while there remains the very real threat of egg collectors stealing in at night to boost their burgeoning - and illegal - hauls.
From April to October, seasonal wardens Paul Nicholls and Ajay Tegala live in the shed next to the Point’s visitor centre, and work from dawn until dusk to monitor and protect the colonies.
Mr Tegala has done the job before, and has returned this year - even though the second three months will be unpaid.
He said: “It’s a beautiful job. I enjoy engaging with the public and observing and protecting the wildlife.”
“Beautiful” hardly begins to describe the Point - or the job, which is enough to summon the green-eyed monster in many people.
To create a diversion, perhaps those green eyes should focus on the future.
For, alongside the human challenges, nature has some curve-balls to deliver.
Natural coastal processes mean the Point is growing longer at its western tip, as sand is scoured and deposited.
And global warming casts a shadow, the length of which cannot be quantified. Will it mean more frequent flooding, or could the warmer temperatures alter the range of species that are present?
It all adds up to more than enough to keep the National Trust brow furrowed as the Blakeney Point reserve embarks on its second century.