New bid to help protect Norfolk's cherished beach nesting birds

Ringed plover Charadrius hiaticula on the artificial lagoon; high tide wader roost at Freiston Shore

Visitors to the Norfolk coast are being asked to help conserve rare ground nesting birds like the ringed plover - Credit: Andy Hay (rspb-images.com)

Conservation groups are teaming up to ask beach goers to help them to protect rare birds.

They fear increasing numbers of visitors to the Norfolk coast could increase the pressure on threatened species.

Ringed plover lay their eggs in shallow scrapes on open beaches and their numbers have seen a sharp decline, with numbers falling across Norfolk by almost 80pc over the last 35 years.

Snettisham

Ben Arthur and Wynona Legg put up signs asking visitors to help safeguard bird nesting areas on the beach at Snettisham - Credit: Kate Wolstenholme

A study in 1994 found 65 breeding pairs on the beaches at Snettisham and Heacham. Last year, there were 44.

Experts fear increasing numbers of visitors to the beaches over two 'staycation' springs and summers has brought added disturbance, along with an increase in nests being trampled on and destroyed by people or their pets.

Visitor numbers boomed as popular foreign holiday destinations were ruled off-limits in the pandemic increasing the pressure on sensitive coastal areas and their wildlife. 

Little tern Sternula albifrons, adult feeding chick on beach, Winterton dunes, Norfolk, August

A little tern feeding a chick on the beach at Winterton - Credit: Lyn Ibbitson-Elks

Norfolk is the most important county in the UK for nesting little terns, which are the UK's smallest seabird.

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In 2021 almost half of the UK population, around 691 pairs were attempting to nest across the north and east of the county, again on beaches.

The shingle spit at Blakeney Point is a vital stronghold for the species, with fewer than 2,000 pairs left in the UK.

Another at-risk species which lays its eggs on the ground is the oystercatcher, which is also in steep decline.

Oystercatcher Haematopus ostralegus, individual walking along beach, RSPB Titchwell Nature Reserve,

An oystercatcher on the beach at Titchwell - Credit: Ben Andrew

Now Wild Ken Hill, the Holkham Estate, the Norfolk Wildlife Trust, the RSPB, the National Trust and the Norfolk Coast Partnership have teamed up for the first time to spread a simple conservation message.

Signs will be appearing on beaches where birds breed asking visitors to stay away from nesting areas and keep their dogs on leads to avoid causing a disturbance.

Wardens will also be patrolling sensitive areas to keep an eye on nests during the breeding season.

Snettisham

From left: Steve Rowland,area manager for the RSPB, Ben Arthur, field officer for the RSPB, Wynona Legg, project officer RSPB, Andrew Jamieson, chairman of Norfolk Coast Partnership, Dominic Buscall, manager at Wild Ken Hill, Victoria Egan, National Trust, Jake Fiennes, Holkham Estate and Katy Owen, Protected Landscapes, Norfolk County Council. - Credit: Kate Wolstenholme

Dominic Buscall, project manager at Wild Ken Hill at Snettisham, said: "We're living in one of the most beautiful parts of England and part of what makes up that beauty is the nature that we have here.

"Some elements of that natural landscape are being depleted, they're having a very tough time. To conserve and restore nature, we must all do our bit, including being respectful to our rare beach nesting birds when visiting the coast this spring and summer."

Wynona Legg, ringed plover officer with the RSPB, said birds had already been sighted looking for suitable areas of the beach to lay their camouflaged eggs in a shallow scrape. 

Snettisham

A trampled bird's nest on the beach at Snettisham - Credit: Jim Scott

Breeding sites will be cordoned off before the birds begin to lay their eggs in late April or early May, while visitors will be asked not to let dogs run off the lead.

Field officer Ben Arthur will be monitoring the plovers and speaking to visitors about them

"I'll be telling people about the birds," he said. "A lot of people don't even know they're here."

Little tern Sternula albifrons, two newly hatched chicks in nest, Winterton-on-Sea, Norfolk, July

Newly-hatched tern chicks - Credit: Ben Andrew

Similar calls will be made along the coast at important breeding sites, such as Holkham, Scolt Head and Blakeney Point.

Andrew Jamieson, chair of the Norfolk Coast Partnership, said it was important to have a single, co-ordinated message to inform the public how they can help to conserve the countryside.

He said: "We ask that all visitors to our coast look out for these endangered birds by staying away from fenced areas during the breeding season and, where asked, by keeping dogs on leads and follow any signs."

snettisham

Ben Arthur and Wynona Legg watching out for birds on the beach at Snettisham - Credit: Kate Wolstenholme

Victoria Egan, the National Trust's general manager for the Norfolk coast and Broads, said: "We've all been doing things individually but this is the first time we've come together to ask people to help.

"People can come and see the wildlife and do their little bit to look after it."