Norfolk coastal defence work treads carefully around pupping seals

A £2m coast protection scheme is underway between Sea Palling and Winterton where grey seals are cur

A £2m coast protection scheme is underway between Sea Palling and Winterton where grey seals are currently breeding. Measures are being put in place to minimise the impact on the colony and specialists are keeping a close eye on their behaviour. - Credit: Archant

Specialists will be keeping a close eye on the breeding seal population as a £2m coast protection scheme gets under way.

Aerial view of seals at Horsey. Date: Oct 2015. Picture: Mike Page

Aerial view of seals at Horsey. Date: Oct 2015. Picture: Mike Page - Credit: Mike Page

Environment Agency engineers are performing a delicate balancing act at the stretch between Sea Palling and Winterton, a haven for nesting little terns and grey seals who are pupping now.

The six-week scheme involves creating one new groyne and replacing or refurbishing around 12 others and is taking place during a 'key window' when the rare seabirds are wintering in Africa.

However, the impact on the seal population which is notoriously sensitive to disturbance is being closely monitored.

The timber and steel groynes have reached the end of their working life and are being replaced by rock groynes built from 10-15 tonne rocks similar to those built over the last 15 years on the same stretch.

Grey Seal colony resting on the beach at Horsey, Norfolk. Picture: James Bass

Grey Seal colony resting on the beach at Horsey, Norfolk. Picture: James Bass - Credit: Eastern Daily Press © 2010

Around 24,000 tonnes of rock has been transported by barge from Norway.

Due to its size this main barge will remain anchored offshore while a smaller barge will transfer the rock to the beach in loads of around 1,200 tonnes.

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The Environment Agency is working with local landowners, Natural England and Friends of Horsey Seals to minimise the risk of disturbing any seal pups.

It has also appointed specialists who will be monitoring seal presence and behaviour closely.

Peter Ansell from Friends of Horsey Seals said: 'We have been closely involved with the planning and operation of the forthcoming works and are confident that the contractors will make every effort to minimise disturbance to the Atlantic Seal Colony during their breeding season.

'Currently the seals prefer to rest in the areas around the rock groynes already built, where sand levels are high. We hope that the new groynes will provide additional shelter and attract many more seals and tourists alike.'

He added that it was essential work and that was not going to encroach on the immediate area where the seals were giving birth.

So far there have only been two deliveries this year.

One pup is being cared for at East Winch Wildlife Hospital after being deserted by its mother, and the other came to 'a sticky end' and was washed out to sea.

Paul Mitchelmore, project manager at the Environment Agency said: 'This large delivery of rock will take around six weeks to offload and position. The areas where contractors are working will be fenced off but otherwise there should be no restrictions to beach users other than the voluntary beach closure operated by Friends of Horsey Seals.'

Several thousand hectares of low-lying land is protected from inundation by the sea defences between Eccles and Winterton. A breach in these defences would cause extensive damage to properties, agricultural land and sites of high nature conservation importance, including the Broads.

A 14km concrete sea-wall was constructed between 1953 and 1989 along the coastline, reinforcing the natural defences, the sand dunes.

The stability of the wall is dependent on its foundations being protected by the beach from wave attack, especially during storms.

In 2008/9 the Environment Agency placed over half a million cubic metres of sand on the beach to restore beach levels. Since then there have been some local fluctuations but, overall, beach levels are currently at an acceptable level.