Biodiversity audit aims to catalogue every wildlife species on north Norfolk coast
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A major “biodiversity audit” aims to catalogue the north Norfolk coast’s complex mosaic of wildlife for the first time – and guide decisions on how to protect it amid environmental change.
From skeins of wintering geese to thronging colonies of seals and terns, this cherished landscape is world-renowned for its natural spectacles.
But ecologists said it is also home a “vast and largely-hidden diversity of invertebrates and plants”, including many rare species found only in the internationally-important habitats that form the coastal strip.
All of this needs careful management by farmers and reserve wardens, such as maintaining water levels on the marshes, balancing erosion forces on sand dune systems or mitigating the impacts of the millions of tourists who visit the region each year.
The coming decades will bring added challenges from climate change and sea-level rise, while post-Brexit policy changes will change the way the environment is funded on farmland – potentially opening up new opportunities for coordinated conservation on a landscape scale.
So a consortium of more than 20 land managers has formed a working partnership called the North Norfolk Coastal Group to devise a joined-up strategy alongside a host of nature organisations including the Norfolk Wildlife Trust, the RSPB, the Environment Agency, the National Trust, the Norfolk Rivers Trust and Natural England.
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But first, they needed more detailed information on the “natural capital” of the landscape, and how it responds to different management activities – so the consortium is working with academics at the University of East Anglia to develop the first comprehensive biodiversity audit for the region.
One of the researchers working on the project is Dr James Gilroy, from the UEA School of Environmental Sciences, who said: “For the first time, the audit will put a number to the untold thousands of species found on the Norfolk coast, and synthesize this information to provide evidence to guide actions on the ground that can benefit guilds of priority species with shared requirements.
“Unlike traditional conservation approaches that typically focus on a small set of ‘flagship’ species, biodiversity auditing provides a comprehensive analysis of the full spectrum of species inhabiting the landscape – including the thousands of cryptic invertebrates and plants that ultimately make up the bulk of diversity in each habitat. The audit defines the importance of each of these species in regional and national contexts, and identifies their precise habitat requirements.”
The audit also aims to provide an evidence base to inform land managers about the value of “ecosystem services” such as carbon sequestration and flood protection.
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Dr Gilroy said several key habitats on the Norfolk coast have the potential to play a significant role in climate mitigation. They including the extensive saltmarshes which, when properly managed, “can even rival tropical forests in their capacity to lock away carbon” as well as offering natural protection from storm surges – which are likely to become an increasing concern as sea levels rise.
The project was originally the brainchild of Prof Paul Dolman at the UEA’s School of Environmental Sciences, who hoped to replicate the success of a similar audit in Breckland. It evolved into a wider partnership involving farmers and landowners following conversations with David Lyles, an award-winning farm conservationist based at Muckleton Farm near Burnham Market, and also a director of the National Nature Reserve at the Holkham Estate.
Mr Lyles said: “The aim is to unify everyone so we have a joined-up landscape for wildlife, because wildlife respects no boundaries. So we will have landowners and land managers working together to give wildlife the best opportunity.
“If we don’t know what is there, how can we protect it, or make any predictions of what is going to happen in the future?
“The initial idea is to take stock of all the existing county records and private records of what is on these places, what are they renowned for, and what happens. Once we have taken stock of that, we can start making suggestions about the best way to manage that coastal strip for everybody, rather than just individuals.”
A formal launch event for consortium members is due to be held on September 25 at the Wild Ken Hill estate in west Norfolk.
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