The dynamic coast - how nature in Norfolk has fought back after the storm surge of December 5

PUBLISHED: 07:00 30 August 2014

Norfolk Wildlife Trust Cley Marshes. 

Norfolk Wildlife Trust Cley Marshes. Picture: ANTONY KELLY

Archant Norfolk 2014

The storm surge on the night of December 5 last year saw millions of tonnes of seawater crash over the shingle barrier at Blakeney Point, Cley and Salthouse Marshes.

The flooded area days after the storm surge. Picture: Trevor Taberham.The flooded area days after the storm surge. Picture: Trevor Taberham.

Breaches were made in the defences, shingle was washed away and saltwater flooded into freshwater pools.

A 45-mile stretch of the Norfolk coast was battered by nature that evening, leaving buildings wrecked and thousands of people homeless.

At Cley, apart from heading out to warn people and moving sand bags, there was little those at the Norfolk Wildlife Trust could do.

Protective measures had been put in place, but they, like everyone else, had to let nature take its course and watched in the dark as the sea water filled the marshes in front of them, wrecking the hides and sending debris everywhere.

Norfolk Wildlife Trust Cley Marshes. Kevin Hart, head of nature reserves at NWT, on Cley beach.
Picture: ANTONY KELLYNorfolk Wildlife Trust Cley Marshes. Kevin Hart, head of nature reserves at NWT, on Cley beach. Picture: ANTONY KELLY

When the scale of the damage became apparent the next morning, people started to write off the nature reserves, saying they could not recover from a surge that in some places reached higher levels than the storms of 1953.

But within a few weeks nature had launched its own fightback - providing a further reminder of quite how powerful it can be.

Now, the Norfolk Wildlife Trust has produced a film about the night of December 5 and the events that followed.

Called Storm Surge - Wildlife on the Edge, it is being shown at Fusion in the Forum, Norwich, from Monday until Saturday.

The film about the storm

Storm Surge: Wildlife on the Edge reveals the impact of the events of December 5 on the much-loved nature reserves of Cley and Salthouse Marshes and Blakeney Point and shows how wildlife is recovering from the floods.

The 15-minute film will be shown continuously at Fusion in the Forum, Norwich, between 10am and 4.30pm from Monday until Saturday, with free admission for all.

It features news coverage of night of the surge, interviews with staff from the Norfolk Wildlife Trust and the National Trust, as well as local residents and footage of the area and its wildlife.

David North, head of people and wildlife at the NWT, gave a “huge thank you” to the Forum Trust and Richard Fair for bringing the north Norfolk coast to the heart of Norwich.

The two organisations have collaborated on similar projects for the last five years, showcasing the county’s amazing natural landscape in the city.

In the film, Ajay Tegala, Blakeney Point ranger for the National Trust, said the storm surge “changes your perception of nature, but it makes you realise just how resilient it is. It makes you realise how powerful nature is.”

The 15-minute film is free to view and will be shown continuously from 10am until 4.30pm each day.

Both beautiful and moving, it tells the story of the surge through news footage, interviews with people who work and live in the area and scenes, both then and now, from the north Norfolk coast.

David North, head of people and wildlife at the NWT, said: “People talk about this being a dynamic coast, but everywhere you go nature is always changing. An event like the storm surge really brings it home that things change - they do not stay the same. It is often people who want things to stay the same, but nature keeps moving.”

He added there were winners and losers in an event like the one last December, but that the area remained rich for wildlife.

Kevin Hart tells of the night of December 5, when the storm surge struck 45 miles of the Norfolk coast.

He headed up to Cley Marshes with the area’s warden, Bernard Bishop.

“We put the operation up here on high alert when the predictions were coming in from the Environment Agency about what the surge could be,” he said.

“It was dark and there was only a certain amount you could see. I remember Bernard and I patrolling the coast and waiting for it.

The first thing I noticed was the smell. The freshwater dykes were filling up with salt water and it was coming up the creeks. It’s a very distinctive smell. We knew it was coming. We drove up the beach road to see where it was overtopping, but had to do a three-point turn because the water had come over the road.

We were looking out for any people, making sure no one was in danger.

I remember when the water came up and started flowing up the coast road. It became more difficult to get the Land Rover around, so we left them on a high field and went out on foot. We relocated a few sand bags and spoke to people and waited for it to recede. That was all we could really do.

It was only the next morning when we saw the damage. We were pretty horrified to see two huge breaches in the shingle at Salthouse and Pope’s Marsh - the piece of land we had purchased not long before.

It was the most expensive piece of land in the country at that stage.

I think we knew it was going to be a bad one because of the level the water came up.

Bernard has been around a long time and he knew what was happening. It pushed his fence down and came right into his garden.

We didn’t know what to expect really, we had systems in place to try and save some of the infrastructure, like tethered boardwalks but we didn’t know how they would fare.

As much as anything, it was the debris.

The clear up was the big thing, there was so much debris we had to sort out.

The reed litter off the reed beds.

We brought in heavy machinery and teams from the Broads reserves, our people from all over the place and lots of volunteers. It was fantastic of them to all pitch in.”

New habitats were created by the storm, with shingle beds attracting birds such as oystercatchers and, as the trust waits for the results of extensive research into the effects of the storm, it seems the majority of species survived.

Kevin Hart, head of nature reserves at the NWT, said: “A lot of research has gone on to see how things have recovered.

“It is fascinating, anecdotally, that none of the grass was killed. The dyke still had a lot of food for birds and in May/June a really good population of water voles were back on site. The birds can get up and on the wing and relocate, but it is the other animals that were going to suffer.”

Mr Hart said hares were back at the site quickly but that, just from observations, the storm surge had a big impact on the rabbit population on the marshes.

“There was also the big question of what are the birds going to feed on, but we have had really good numbers of chicks. We also suspect the ground fauna is OK.”

Cley and Salthouse were under water for three days and the shingle banks, which were dispersed by the storm surge, reformed naturally within three weeks.

“We didn’t want to push the shingle back, we wanted minimum intervention - you don’t interfere with nature,” said Mr Hart.

“It’s a self-sustaining defence. Wide and shallow to resist the sea.

“But we were really nervous about it, we were having meetings with the Environment Agency and Natural England so that if something didn’t happen, we could do something about it.

“The whole system here is managed retreat - giving it time but not abandoning it.”

The changes in the reed beds have, according to Mr Hart, been the most dramatic.

The salt water appears to have stunted the growth of this year’s reed and, looking out across the marshes on a warm August day, it still looks like a winter scene.

A number of protective measures had been put in place before December’s surge.

Boardwalks had been tethered and a drainage system called the new cut took saltwater into an estuary.

But there will be a continued look at protecting the area from the might of the sea.

“We and the National Trust are investing in the coast and looking after it for the future,” said Nik Khandpur, head of development at NWT.

“This came at a time when we had reached our goal of purchasing the land at Pope’s Marsh. But nature is resilient and the area will continue to be there for people to enjoy and engage with.”

As the NWT waits for the results of research into the storm surge to be published, they invite people to watch the film about the night of December 5 and what it has meant for the area.

They also urge members of the public to come and enjoy the internationally-renowned coast for themselves.

“It’s unfortunate when people see nature as a peripheral thing in their lives,” said Mr Hart.

“As well as being at the mercy of this stuff, it’s an important part of the human race. There is something very special about understanding it and having a connection with it. So many people get a great deal of pleasure out of the natural world. It’s well documented that experiences are a lot more valuable than material things. We always want to encourage more people to come out and experience the natural world. If they value it, they will want to protect it and that’s the key thing for us.”

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