It's not paradise - but it will be home

RICHARD BATSON Your home is set on the scenic north Norfolk coast, with views of the sea and grazing cattle that have inspired artists and day trippers for generations.

RICHARD BATSON

Your home is set on the scenic north Norfolk coast, with views of the sea and grazing cattle that have inspired artists and day trippers for generations.

But you are faced with moving from your magnificent marsh - to a humble potato field next to a fenland sugar beet factory.

In terms of the old “location, location, location” adage it looks like a step on to the property snake rather than ladder.

But if you are a rare bird, it is an inland migration that is about survival, survival, survival.

For a combination of climate change and new coastal management methods are threatening the bittern's favourite seaside spot at Cley marshes.

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Higher seas and lower shingle banks mean the waves are seeping through and creeping over the fragile defences, adding a dash of salt to the freshwater pools and ditches where the bird loves to fish for food and make baby bitterns.

Years of searching for a replacement habitat have only now found an answer - but it is nearly 50 miles away at Hilgay near Downham Market.

A slice of farmland beside the river Wissey near the Wissington sugar factory has been bought by the Environment Agency and will be managed by the Norfolk Wildlife Trust.

Despite looking like an ordinary arable field, it can be turned into a wetland area of open water, reedbed and grassland.

It should attract the bittern, and other creatures, such as water voles, otters, and marsh harriers, in the coming years - and be safe from coastal problems.

Trust director Brendan Joyce said it was an exciting project, and the result of several years searching for a suitable replacement.

Compensatory land was needed because the bittern was protected under European nature conservation laws.

Others places including the nearby Glaven Valley had been ruled out for technical reasons, and it was down to finding land which was both manageable and available.

“Ideally we would have wanted it in the same vicinity, but the area around Cley is squeezed by the rising land behind, and the Glaven Valley was too narrow.

“And you would not want it too close to the coast because the new land could be under threat too.”

It could take years to develop Hilgay, because “you don't do the work, then the next year the birds turn up,” said Mr Joyce.

Bitterns and other animals could not be made to travel to Hilgay but they covered large distances and if the conditions were right it was hoped they would be lured there.

“We could scatter some corn, but we are not a zoo - we have to let nature take its course and think in the long term.”

Other species which could enjoy the new area included reedbed birds like bearded tits, reed and sedge warblers, waders including teal, widgeon, redshank and marshland snipe.

The 60ha Hilgay site would not initially be open to the public, concentrating on encouraging wildlife before human visitors - though walkways and hides were likely to follow.

With the coastline and Broads under growing risk from erosion and flooding Mr Joyce said it could be the start of a many habitat creation projects in the region with the fens a potential source of new wetland habitats - and well located to other nature conservation attractions such as the Welney wildfowl trust and Lakenheath fen.

Changes in the marsh habitats at Cley do not mean it will turn into a wildlife wasteland - as the trust's investment in a new £1m visitor centre, which is due to open in the next few weeks.

Norfolk Wildlife Trust director Brendan Joyce said it would be many years before the marsh changed - and any switch to more brackish waters could bring in new species which were less sensitive to salt - such as avocet, shearwaters, little egrets and spoonbills.

Last year nine spoonbills were spotted in one day at Cley, whereas a decade ago a single one would have been a crowd-puller, he added.

But attraction of Cley was not just its breeding species. It was also the rare migrants which got blown off course on their way to Siberia and put down on our coast as the first landfall.

Opening of the centre was about a month behind schedule due to last minute niggles associated with such major and complex projects, he added.

The centre, which has its own wind power turbine, is next to the old thatched one on the coast road, which will continue - housing a remote-controlled camera giving life images of what is happening on the reserve

Under the new building's green turf roof, a panoramic window will offer views of the marshes as well as touchscreen computer information on the wildlife - and changing habitats.

Contact the centre on 01263 740008, or visit www.norfolkwildlifetrust.org.uk