Abandoning the best of Norfolk to the Sea

In addition to the Environment Agencies countenanced loss of the Cley Marshes, by failure to maintain the 500 year old shingle sea defence bank, we now have the abandonment of two more internationally acclaimed wildlife site, the RSPB’s Titchwell, probably England’s finest bird reserve, and the National Trust Blakeney Point, acclaimed as one of the ten of the UK’s finest coastal beauty spots.

All are deemed to be lost, in part at least, for similar reasons to those same excuses given by the Broads Authority in contemplating the loss of many beautiful Norfolk villages, historic churches and the Broads themselves.

The government’s environmental body, Natural England, said that nine miles of sea defences between the seaside villages of Eccles and Winterton were unsustainable “beyond the next 20-50 years”, creating the possibility of “realigning the coast”. What this cold academic language actually means is wiping part of Norfolk off the map: 600 homes, six villages, five medieval churches, four fresh-water Broadland lakes, several historic windmills, precious nature reserves and valuable agricultural land would be given up to the sea.

So it would appear that the very bodies charged with the defence of that which is precious and valuable are being bent by the governments ‘Managed Retreat’ a.k.a. ‘Making Room for Water’ to save sums of money on continued defence that is but a tiny fraction of the value of that which they contemplate will disappear from the map. It is noteworthy that although Norfolk, North Norfolk, Great Yarmouth and the local councils all place objections to the provision of a licence to further dredge off our coastline, the RSPB, also a statutory consultant, have not once done so.

As Jerry Berne of Sustainable Coastlines said “Ignorance is not necessarily bliss especially for the birds and other wildlife which depended on these wetlands”. He further points out that for the same pounds, probably far less than the cost of visually out of character concrete walls, modern methods could have actually expanded and extended the coastline.

Now the RSPB intend to sacrifice 11 hectares of their Titchwell reserve to the sea, a decision which is unthinkable and almost unbelievable. That precious area, and the already doomed Cley Marshes, are both highly important wildlife sites which also bring in considerable income to the Norfolk economy. The RSPB spokesman said: “We looked at the options for building up the beach. We believe you need to allow the coast to do what it wants to do to build up natural processes. We looked at building a sea wall but that doesn’t really fit in with us because it’s not very green having concrete everywhere”.

But had they REALLY looked they would have seen on our MARINET website that low cost unobtrusive underwater stabilizers to halt erosion and build beaches are now available and in wide use in the USA and other countries. These low cost, proven and sustainable, and if employed would undoubtedly maintain and preserve the existing area.

A further grave disappointment is their failure to oppose the main cause of the rapidly escalating erosion. It is strange that whilst Norfolk, North Norfolk, Great Yarmouth and all Coastal Parish Councils have opposed the granting of licences for further Offshore Aggregate Dredging, these other ‘responsible’ statutory consultants, NE, the RSPB, the NT and the BA have consistently failed to do so. One would think that it is obvious that if the cause is not stopped and the cure is not sought, what is best in Norfolk will soon disappear for all time.

Here follow the press comments on the most recent relinquishments of responsibility, the previous having already appeared on this website. First, from the Eastern Daily Press of 25th August ’08, regarding Titchwell.

The fight to save the RSPB jewel

Titchwell is one of Britain’s finest nature reserves, the crown jewels of the RSPB. As well as rare birds, it brings more than 90,000 visitors to the region and millions into the local economy. Now the threat to its patchwork of habitats is as clear as the waves which pound its beach and as inevitable as the currents which toil beneath them. But conservationists believe they can stay one step ahead of climate change by working with the tides as they remodel our coastline, instead of trying to fight the sea. Chris Bishop reports.

Map showing how the sea threatens to swamp Titchwell

How the sea threatens to swamp Titchwell


No-one had heard of climate change when the RSPB bought Titchwell Marsh. Now the former firing range is in the front line as bird lovers battle to save it.

Reclaimed from the sea hundreds of years ago, the marsh was used for target practice and cattle grazing until the floods of 1953 breached its ancient defences. Two decades later, the RSPB began work on what soon became one of its most visited reserves, where tens of thousands would flock to see rare species like bitterns, bearded tits, marsh harriers, plovers, egrets and terns.

But as Titchwell’s popularity grew as one of the coast’s top attractions to a new generation of conservation-minded tourists, the North Sea was less impressed with man’s attempts to contain it.

Beneath the waves, longshore drifts are powerful currents which run parallel to the shore, pushing sand along in their path. Two such currents collide head-on at Titchwell, carrying sediment away from the site. Second World War remains, including a pill box and tanks which once stood on the dunes, now lie on the beach several yards below the high tide mark.

Dunes in front of the reserve were worn away by the mid-1990s. A creek formed as the sea broke through, which now channels the force of the incoming tide at a corner of the low sea wall which is the reserve’s first line of defence. Recent winters have seen storm surges come within a metre of overcoming Titchwell’s defences. Surges are the North Sea’s perfect storm, caused when spring tides coincide with low air pressure and northerly winds.

“Sea levels are rising and storm surges are more prevalent,” said Rob Coleman, who leads the 30-strong team of staff and volunteers looking after Titchwell. “We looked at building a sea wall but that doesn’t really fit in with us because it’s not very green having concrete everywhere. We looked at the options for building up the beach. We believe you need to allow the coast to do what it wants to do to build up natural processes. I don’t like the word managed retreat, because that doesn’t really convey what we’re doing. We’re not giving it up to the sea, we’re working with it. It’s all about balancing losses with gains, if we don’t give up the brackish marsh the whole lot could go.”

Flooding by a storm surge breaching defences would threaten the reserve’s inner sanctum – vast freshwater reed beds which provide shelter and a ready food source for bitterns. Shoalsshoal A sandbank or sandbar that makes the water shallow of rudd provide a well-stocked larder but the fish which flash through the reeds and dimple the surface would be wiped out if the sea broke through.

Under Titchwell’s Coastal Change project, defences to the east of the reserve’s Brackish Marsh will be breached next year, allowing the sea to enter via creeks which criss-cross the mudflats. Within decades it will transform itself into salt marsh, which absorbs the power of the tide far more effectively than so-called hard defences, forming a barrier between the bitterns’ inner sanctum and the sea.

The same currents which have driven a gap between Titchwell’s dunes are extending Scolt Head, which within a couple of generations is expected to have grown westwards to the point where it protects the reserve from future erosion, pushing the problem westwards towards Thornham and Holme.

So while 11 hectares will be lost, the bulk of the reserve, including its most threatened species will be saved.

° ° ° ° ° ° °

A further item on the abandonment of the RSPB Titchwell Reserve appeared in the Independent of 25th August 2008.

° ° ° ° ° ° °

Next, also from the EDP, dated 27 August 2008, comes this article by Chris Bishop.

Blakeney Point under threat

Ten of Britain’s finest coastal beauty spots are at imminent risk of being radically changed or even lost to climate change and rising sea levels – including Norfolk’s iconic Blakeney Point.

Blakeney Point

Blakeney Point. Photo: Mike Page.


A new report from the National Trust says our favourite seaside destinations are changing fast and may soon no longer resemble the way they were captured in our holiday snapshots. It warns that it is no longer sustainable to hold back the rising tides to protect much-loved places like Blakeney, whose narrow sand and shingle spit, which juts out from the north Norfolk coast, is visited by tens of thousands of people each summer.

On Monday, the RSPB said it was abandoning part of its flagship Titchwell Marsh reserve, near Hunstanton, because defences protecting its tidal marsh could no longer be maintained.

Last week Lord Smith, the new head of the Environment Agency, said Britain faced hard choices over which areas of our coast to defend and which to allow the sea to reclaim. The latest report, by the National Trust, warns: “As Blakeney National Nature Reserve lies just above high tide the area is already at risk from flooding. But more frequent storm events and higher tides could wash away important breeding colonies of little, sandwich and common terns. We may also see the loss of other valuable habitats like freshwater marsh and coastal reed bed.” The report says a river within the reserve has already been diverted to reduce the flood risk to neighbouring villages. But in an echo of the RSPB’s statement that it intended to work with the sea as it reshapes our coastline, rather than try and contain it with so-called “hard defences”, it adds: “In the future, the trust has taken the decision to work with natural processes and allow Blakeney Point to evolve naturally.”

Blakeney is part of more than 700 miles of Britain’s coastline owned by the National Trust, which has 3.5 million members.

Yesterday, Adrian Woodhall, support officer with the trust’s coast and marine project, said Blakeney and Orford Ness, on the Suffolk Coast, were “dynamic features” which were constantly changing. “They’ve always moved slightly, depending on whether material from elsewhere was being deposited on them or they’re giving up material to go somewhere else in an erosion phase,” he said.

Phil Dyke, the trust’s coast and marine adviser, said: “To try and predict what these places will look like in the future, the National Trust has carried out research examining how things like sea-level rise and increased storminess will affect all our coastal sites. At the National Trust we believe in working with natural processes wherever possible. We need to realise that our environment is not fixed and that change is inevitable. Society needs to learn to adapt.”

Other threatened landmarks include St Michael’s Mount, an island off the Cornish coast, and Studland Beach, in Dorset, which is visited by more than a million people each year.

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