Norfolk Wildlife Trust opposes planned conservation zone at Blakeney Marshes

A key voice for the protection of Norfolk's wildlife has said it cannot support a controversial 'no-go' conservation area planned on Blakeney Marshes.

Defra is due to launch a public consultation later this year on proposed Marine Conservation Zones, which include several reference areas (RAs) to protect vulnerable shoreline habitats and assess how they would fare without the impact of human intervention.

One of these RAs covers a square kilometre of inter-tidal mudflats, salt marshes, and sand dunes at Blakeney – an area historically used by wildfowlers, bait-diggers and samphire-pickers who fear their traditional lifestyles and industries could be at risk.

Local opponents, led by North Norfolk MP Norman Lamb, have petitioned Defra minister Richard Benyon in an appeal for the contentious site to be removed from the forthcoming consultation in December.

And now the Norfolk Wildlife Trust (NWT) has added to those calls by publishing a position statement which questions 'the scientific and community consultation processes which led to the proposals for and boundaries of the Blakeney Marsh Reference Area (RA4).'

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The recommendations were made by stakeholder group Net Gain last year and handed to Defra in July alongside scientific advice from Natural England (NE) and the Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC).

John Hiskett, senior conservation officer for the NWT, was the trust's representative during the Net Gain stakeholder discussions.

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He said the RAs were considered too late during the process to be properly reviewed at the time, and that the trust had chosen to make its statement now after the full advice package had been published and handed to Defra.

He said: 'There was pretty good consultation with the main conservation zones, but none of the regional projects got very far in putting forward their reference areas, and it was done pretty hurriedly at the end of the process.

'They (the RAs) were not reviewed in the same detail and with the same level of community consultation. We expected that the boundary would only encompass the salt marsh itself but, when it came out, Net Gain had drawn a bigger boundary that went out into the estuary, which gave the concerns about seal trips and things like that.

'It was only supposed to be about salt marsh, and not the wider habitat. We wanted to look at what NE (and JNCC) had said and now that their very detailed report we have decided to make our views clear.

'We think there should be an RA for salt marsh somewhere in the North Sea area, and wherever that is there is going to be a need for a lot of community consultation. But we have come to realise Blakeney is not the best place for it.'

The NWT statement supports the general principle of Reference Areas, and says the trust 'has no issue' with the proposed designation of the Seahorse Lagoon (RA2a) and Arnold's Marsh saline lagoons (RA2b) on land that it manages at nearby Cley.

It says: 'We are keen to work with others to find an alternative site which meets the needs of marine conservation and also meets the concerns of the local community, who have traditionally used this area for generations.'

A Defra spokesman explained that no decisions had yet been taken on reference areas, and said: 'We aware of the sensitivities surrounding the designation of reference areas, and will consider this when examining the advice.'

The NWT statement backs calls made by the National Trust and other community groups for the Government to reassess the designation process.

In March, the National Trust published a statement which says: 'The proposals for Reference Areas; which severely restrict traditional activities that have supported conservation, were made far too late in the process.

'For the area of saltmarsh at Blakeney, it did not consider the range of activities that exist here nor allow a proper consultation with local people.

'We feel that the site selection for these Reference Areas was a flawed process with no published criteria for their selection, no short-list drawn up and no evaluation process declared. Any outcome of a flawed process will naturally remain flawed we feel.'

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