In winter, our vast mudflats and undisturbed saltmarshes can seem lonely inhospitable places, despite the fact they teem with a myriad of wildlife.

Even during the warmth of summer, they manage to maintain an air of distance and remoteness, and this inaccessibility happily provides a sanctuary for our breeding waders and wildfowl.

The beaches of the north Norfolk coast are a different story in high summer, with holiday-makers understandably enjoying the wide flat sands and even wider blue sky.

Competition is always high for the best spot, and this can lead to conflict with our beach-nesting birds such as ringed plover and little tern. Often their only chance of success is to find themselves in one of the specially roped-off areas provided by conservationists, although sadly this is still no guarantee of safety from disturbance.

Eastern Daily Press: Sanderling on Titchwell BeachSanderling on Titchwell Beach (Image: Nick Appleton)

For naturalists, and all lovers of lonely walks, it is in winter, when the beaches empty of crowds, that they truly come alive. The wide-open space somehow feels even more expansive. At low tide this is evident by the mile or so walk to reach the sea and a glorious horizon that never closes in.

A winter walk along our sandy coastline ensures a great many wildlife spectaculars. In early winter large groups of pregnant grey seals haul themselves out on to isolated stretches of beach to ‘pup’.

Their single offspring is born furry white – not good camouflage on sand and pebbles, but a relic adaptation from the Ice Age when they would have been born on snow! They are fed for little more than three weeks, guzzling three litres of fat-rich milk each day, before being left to fend entirely for themselves.

Later in the winter the adults will gather to moult, and this is often at a site used regularly for this activity. Their presence is accompanied by a strong fishy smell that is the unmistakable aroma of a moulting grey seal colony.

They draw in flocks of turnstone and sanderlings, which search for flies and sand-hoppers around their lounging bodies. The sanderlings’ jaunty little run is rather comical, especially when they are chased by folds of foaming surf.

Groups of them will sprint ahead of dog-walkers until they become bored of the chase and lift themselves into the air, allowing the sea breeze to carry them over the heads of the pursuers and back to where they started.

Behind the smooth flat beaches are rolling golden sand dunes. 

Norfolk Wildlife Trust Holme Dunes is a great nature reserve to visit at any time of year and has one of the UK’s most important colonies of the rare natterjack toad. In winter the seaward-facing dunes are good places to search for shore larks and flocks of plump little snow bunting. Holme Dunes is an important reserve, as many of Norfolk’s dune systems now sit under large conifer plantations or link up golf courses.

Heading east along the coast the beaches narrow into shingle banks. Freshwater pools and scrapes lie behind at NWT’s Cley and Salthouse marshes.

In recent years winter storms have breached the shingle, inundating the marshes with seawater. Despite this, Cley still remains one of the top birdwatching sites in the country, and rare vagrant birds continue to be recorded on the reserve. In winter, after a good breeding year, the reedbeds are full of bearded tits. The mature male is a striking bird, sporting a powder blue head and droopy Victorian gent’s moustache.

In freezing, snowy weather, bittern, normally hidden in the reeds, can be quite obliging as they stalk along frozen dyke edges.

Our often milder winters now find spoonbill spending the whole year here too. They have re-colonised north Norfolk, which is one of their few breeding areas in the UK. The return of this strange-looking bird, with a spatula beak, has been possible due to habitat improvements and legal protection, ensuring they no longer end up in glass display cases.

Our region’s coast, and its array of wildlife, is appealing all year round, but when the beach cricket stumps have been collected up, and the wind-break and towels folded away, for me the north Norfolk coast truly comes alive. A long winter's walk in this Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty can prove an exhilarating experience. 

Eastern Daily Press: Sea action on sand at Blakeney PointSea action on sand at Blakeney Point (Image: Neville Yardy)

Beaches and sand dunes to visit this winter

The marshes of the Norfolk Wildlife Trust Cley and Salthouse nature reserve are famous with birdwatchers. Find reed beds, saltmarsh and shingle beach plus a visitors’ centre with a gift shop and refreshments.

Natural England's Winterton Dunes National Nature Reserve is excellent for birds, butterflies and a variety of dune system plants. The slack pools are home to natterjack toads in summer.

Holkham National Nature Reserve is the most exclusive, diverse and dramatic beach and dune systems in Norfolk. The vast beach is a great place to see birds such as shore lark and snow bunting.

For full details of directions, car parking and visiting times check NWT, Natural England and Holkham Nature Reserve websites.