Time to face up to coastal change

The next 12 months could be a defining period for the future of wildlife sites along the region's coastline as the impact of climate change and the long-term impact of last November's devastating floods become clearer, as ALASDAIR MCGREGOR reports.

The next 12 months could be a defining period for the future of wildlife sites along the region's coastline as the impact of climate change and the long-term impact of last November's devastating floods become clearer, as ALASDAIR MCGREGOR reports.


Important wildlife sites along the Norfolk and Suffolk coasts are facing an increasingly uncertain future as the risk of flooding continues to grow, experts warned last night.

As sea levels rise due to the changing climate and the east coast continues to slowly sink, vital nature reserves are becoming more vulnerable to saltwater flooding, threatening the wealth of wildlife there.

Clean-up operations after the devastating floods of November 1 last year are continuing, but experts concede that efforts to hold back the rising tides are proving increasingly ineffective.

In Norfolk, Holme Dunes and Cley Marshes have been highlighted as areas particularly under threat from flooding, while in Suffolk a search for a new wildlife area to compensate for the expected loss of freshwater habitat between Dunwich and Walberswick has started.

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Wildlife organisations are constantly working with the Environment Agency (EA) to try to improve and build flood defences, but with a finite pot of cash, some projects will never get off the ground.

For example, the EA has just shelled out £20,000 on repairing four breaches of shingle bank - which acts as a natural sea defence - along the Suffolk coast, but has stressed it was a one-off project because maintaining it in the long-term is unsustainable.

Brendan Joyce, director of the Norfolk Wildlife Trust (NWT), said: “Flooding is an increasing and ongoing concern for NWT. At Holme Dunes, on the north Norfolk coast, there has been a massive erosion of dunes and rising sea levels. It may flood any day - and is probably inevitable.

“Although conservation is one of our main priorities, there are some situations where we cannot fight nature and, as such, the future of Holme Dunes is one we will have to adapt to, rather than shape ourselves.

“At Cley Marshes, it is a similar story and the marshes are gradually being reclaimed by the sea. Sea levels are rising and the natural protection of the shingle ridge is eroding. In the future the area will change and become increasingly subject to inter-tidal influences.”

Mr Joyce explained that at Holme, the sea was likely to breach the dunes and create saline lagoons, which would meet up with the sea at high tide.

He added: “However, these are mostly assumptions, as no one has yet created any forecast models, so we have no guarantees and can only guess what we will have to face.”

At Holme, the EA has created a sand dune defence system using fencing which collects and traps sand in a bid to form a buffer. However, the NWT says this is only a temporary measure, which has had limited success.

The floods of November 1, which affected large swathes of Norfolk and Suffolk, were caused when high tides were whipped up by a 1.75m surge of water, driven down the North Sea by a Force 11 storm.

While the storm was still regarded as an exceptional event, Steve Western, a forecaster at UEA-based Weatherquest, said the east coast would become increasingly susceptible to flooding.

Global warming means sea levels were rising by a least 2mm every year while the east coast sinks by 1-2cms every 100 years, Mr Western explained.

He added: “The land is sinking and the sea is rising so the coastline has become more exposed and storms will have a greater impact. We are also in for slightly windier times.”

There is an acceptance that nature's forces will change the eco-system of parts of the east coast forever, but the Environment Agency, which is responsible for overseeing flood defence work, is still actively pursuing projects to preserve sites.

It is currently holding consultations over the future strategy for flood defences in Dunwich and Walbers-wick, the results of which should be made public in April or May.

Area flood risk manager Mark Johnson pointed to other projects, such as the £8m coastal defence scheme around Southwold and work to improve drainage at Cley.

However, he stressed the EA had to fight hard for government money to carry out such schemes, which would become more important as flood risks increased.

Mr Johnson said: “It's a challenging future in terms of what we are doing and we do factor climate change into our schemes.

“We are competing nationally for a limited amount of money, so it is competitive. If we had the money there would be more things we could do.”

Alan Miller, site manager for Suffolk Wildlife Trust's coastal reserves, said that while the infiltration of saltwater would create a different type of nature site for future generations, it was important to maintain freshwater sites, such as Dingle Marshes, for as long as possible.

“We are looking at it day by day, but we will be losing freshwater habitat, which is extremely valuable. Freshwater habitats are getting very squeezed on the east coast and it is a challenge. It's the changing face of our nature reserves where one habitat is lost, but another is in the early stages of being created.”

Where protection against the sea is no longer viable, wildlife trusts have the option of creating new sites further inland, such as the RSPB reserve at Lakenheath.

It is still hoped the inland reedbeds of Dingle can be protected, but a search for land, known as a compen-satory habitat, has already taken place in readiness for serious further flooding at the site. Meanwhile, work to find an area to make up for any loss of freshwater sites at Cley, in Norfolk, has already taken place.

However, Mr Miller said this sort of activity could also be fraught with difficulties. “We don't want to destroy one habitat to create another.”

The tidal surges of November 1, also affected coastal reserves at Easton, near Southwold, and Walberswick, but inland sites were also affected. Saltwater was pumped into the Norfolk broads and was responsible for killing thousands of fish at Potter Heigham and the RSPB reserve at Strumpshaw Fen.

Strumpshaw warden Tim Strudwick said in the two months after the flooding, about three quarters of the saltwater had been flushed out and that while its bitterns were unlikely to breed successfully this year, there was renewed hope for 2008.