Norfolk Wildlife Trust’s �1m Cley Marshes appeal highlights the value of our coastal treasures
The Norfolk Wildlife Trust has launched the biggest appeal in its history to buy a �1m plot of coastal land. But what makes the site so priceless to nature-lovers? Rural affairs correspondent CHRIS HILL reports.
When a sizeable expanse of north Norfolk's windswept coastal scenery came up for sale, the binoculars of the birding community focused in hopeful anticipation on the neighbouring landowner.
After all, the world-renowned Cley Marshes nature reserve next door was itself created after a pioneering group of friends bought the land at auction in 1926 – laying the foundations for the national Wildlife Trust movement in the process.
And today's Norfolk Wildlife Trust (NWT) was quick to honour the spirit of its founders, and the aspirations of its supporters, by launching the biggest appeal in its history to grasp this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to expand its flagship reserve.
The trust's Cley Marshes Land Purchase Appeal aims to raise �1m to buy the 143 acres of privately-owned land which could complete an unbroken 8km of coastal nature reserves, stretching from Blakeney Point to Salthouse Marshes.
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It would also extend the NWT reserve by a third, protecting an added swathe of grazing marshes, reed beds, saline lagoons and salt marshes which allow countless thousands of native and migratory birds to nest, feed and flourish here.
Trust members said the hefty price tag would be outweighed by the site's priceless value in connecting wetland habitats for the world's wildlife – as well as boosting the local economy and education opportunities.
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David North, the trust's head of people and wildlife, said: 'So many people genuinely love this part of the Norfolk coast and it is special for all kinds of reasons. From NWT's perspective it is important for its biodiversity and the enormous range of rare species, but it is equally important that people love it for the landscape and, that rare thing in England, a sense of wilderness.
'The big picture is something we call 'living landscapes'. Nature reserves over the last 100 years have done a fantastic job of protecting rarities and rare habitats but what they fail to do is protect wildlife in the wider countryside, so today we are part of a movement which is about making nature reserves bigger, better and more connected.
'Or, to put it another way, it is about restoring land, recreating habitats and reconnecting them. If you have species which are depend on a specific habitat like a reed bed and then the climate changes, in the modern world these habitats have become fragmented and scattered. They might be surrounded by agricultural land or roads or development. We need to reconnect these areas to the wider countryside.
'This purchase will create more than 8km of connected land which is some of the finest coast of this nature on the planet. It means we are beginning to work on a landscape scale and giving the wildlife the ability to move around.'
Mr North said the wildlife living at – and travelling to – the Cley reserve was of international importance.
'I am not exaggerating when I say the work we do here at Cley affects wildlife across the world, ' he said. 'We have got pink-footed geese and black-tailed godwits coming here from Iceland, Brent geese from Russia and some of the wigeon are coming from the Chinese border.
'Waders like the knot have crossed continents to get here, breeding in Alaska and migrating over the Greenland ice cap to winter in north Norfolk. These sites are stepping stones in a global network of sites which global wildlife completely depends on.'
Although the Cley reserve, and particularly its hallowed East Bank, have become a Mecca for bird-watchers around the world, it is also home to two globally-endangered aquatic creatures – the starlet sea anemone and the European eel.
But the benefits of the land deal could extend far beyond nature conservation.
Mr North said: 'The wider aspect for conservation is about sustainable lifestyles and sustainable economies. The main industries here going back to medieval times and up to the 18th century used to be fishing, farming and smuggling.
'Today, tourism is the most important part of the economy here for job creation and employment and we know that the nature reserves along the north Norfolk coast play a really significant part as they help extend the summer season. Spring and autumn are great times for wildlife, and so is the winter, and the visitors which come to see it helps keep the pubs and restaurants open.'
Despite the wild appearance of this stretch of coastline, its natural beauty belies a complex ecosystem which requires constant management to maintain the correct water levels, keep grazing animals in the correct areas and cut back vegetation – all while preserving its appeal for the 100,000 visitors who arrive every year.
Bernard Bishop has been the warden at Cley for more than 40 years and is one of five generations of his family to have worked on the reserve.
Although the appeal has got off to a flying start, with �200,000 raised since its launch in August, Mr Bishop said the purchase of the extra land would just be the first step.
'The current owner has made it quite clear that he would prefer to see that land go to the trust,' he said. 'But purchasing it will be only the start. It is the management of it as well.
'It will be managed in much the same way as Cley is managed now. The reed will be harvested in the winter and sold in the traditional way. Through the centre of the reserve we have the wader scrapes, and the unique thing about the six wader scrapes at Cley is that each of them can be controlled individually.
'We have different water levels at different times of the year to suit different birds. At the moment the levels are quite high because we have waders here, and in the spring they are lower to expose the mud for ground-nesting birds like avocets.
'All the time, the water level is fluctuated for migrating waders like curlew, sandpiper, black-tailed godwit and spotted redshank. We are creating a tidal effect with fresh water.'
The water is taken from the Catchwater Drain, which runs alongside the A149, and channelled through a series of sluices into more than 60 underground pipes, with right-angled 'elbows' which can be twisted to alter the levels upwards or downwards. The run-off eventually drains into Blakeney harbour.
'We are doing this all year round,' said Mr Bishop. 'A lot of people don't realise that. They come into the centre and think that the tide is down, and when I finish explaining it to them they cannot believe the amount of management that goes on at this reserve.'
After a lifetime managing the reserve amid its burgeoning popularity, Mr Bishop said he was excited about the possibilities ahead.
'It is just awesome,' he said. 'I cannot believe what has happened here. If my father could see this I don't know what he would say.
'He used to meet 10 people and take them through the reserves and now we are the flagship of the NWT with 100,000 visitors a year. To have that number of people here, we must be doing something right.
'It is lovely to look out over the reserve and when you think how it began in 1926 and what it is now and all that we have been part of – I am very proud of it. I want to be part of this next stage and I want to see it up and running.'
The Cley Marshes Land Purchase Appeal has already generated more than �200,000, with donations from as far afield as the Middle East, from where a surprise donation of $1,000 (about �615) was made by Nature Iraq.
Here's how you can contribute:
-Credit Cards: Call 01603 625540
-Text: CLEY12 + the amount (�) to 70070
-Visit: NWT Cley Marshes visitor centre and donate directly
-Post: Send to Cley Marshes Land Purchase Appeal, Norfolk Wildlife Trust, Freepost ANG20591, Bewick House, 22 Thorpe Road, Norwich, Norfolk NR1 1ZW.