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The shifting sands of Norfolk

PUBLISHED: 10:39 02 August 2016 | UPDATED: 11:44 09 August 2016

Happisburgh beach at sunset

Happisburgh beach at sunset

Archant Norfolk 2016

As the elements constantly re-shape our Norfolk coastline, Mark Nicholls looks at how man and nature are working more closely to protect the shoreline landscape

Many of us will be heading to the beach - such as here at Gorleston - this summer, but protecting the coast for the future means balancing the needs of habitat, homes, wildlife and leisureMany of us will be heading to the beach - such as here at Gorleston - this summer, but protecting the coast for the future means balancing the needs of habitat, homes, wildlife and leisure

As one of the county’s natural gems, the Norfolk shoreline is always on the move.

At times guided by the hand of man, at others it shifts unpredictably with the ravages of the elements as wind, rain, snow, sleet, hail and baking sunshine all leave their mark. Storm surges, strong winds, high tides and freak weather patterns, can even see the coastal landscape change overnight. Places such as Happisburgh, Hemsby, Brancaster, Blakeney and Cley know this only too well.

Cley harbourCley harbour

Yet in more recent years there has been a more conciliatory approach to coastal defence, with organisations such as local authorities, parish councils, government agencies, community groups and wildlife and heritage charities seeking to work with the natural elements rather than fighting back.

Ten years ago, the National Trust – which looks after 775 miles of UK coastline, including stretches in the east - investigated how the shore was likely to change over the next century. The resulting Shifting Shores report underlined the need to work with the natural processes and adapt to coastal change rather than just build bigger and stronger sea defences.

Blakeney quaysideBlakeney quayside

John Sizer, National Trust general manager for the Norfolk Coast, says: “If the mentality is that we defend our coast, all we are doing is storing up problems for future generations. We know we need to review our mindset and although there are places where we need an engineered solution, we should also look at where we allow things to work more naturally.”

In 2013 and 2014, a succession of winter storms and extreme tides saw levels of erosion and flooding that experts thought would happen over the five-to-15 years occur almost overnight, notably with the North Sea surge of December 5, 2013. The National Trust’s Brancaster Activity Centre and Blakeney Freshes, where freshwater grazing and paths were over-run by the sea, were hit and, more recently, anecdotal examples of shoreline parking areas being inundated by the sea are being reported.

A view of Brancaster beach and golf club, from the top of Mill HillA view of Brancaster beach and golf club, from the top of Mill Hill

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report underlined the need to support adaptation and rather than trying to stop change, it urged organisations such as the trust to plan ahead for change by protecting wildlife and adapting buildings and activities. Underlining its commitment to this approach, the trust will have 80 coastal adaptation strategies in place at its coastal hotspots by 2020, and has revived its Brancaster Activity centre with flood mitigation, rather than pure defence, in mind. That will also see areas such as the Blakeney Freshes defended with lower, more robust banks, in the short to medium term to protect wildlife rather than constructing higher banks.

In working with nature, John explains there were several factors - financial considerations; what is best for nature conservation and public access, and commercial opportunities.

“Financial considerations are important,” he says. “We need to think whether high cost defences are the right route to go down, for example. There are places where the population is so great that it is in our interest to defend but we have to also understand the impact of that in the flanking areas. We have to think about this issue in a rounded way; from the people perspective, commercial perspective and wildlife perspective.

“Our over-arching goal is to achieve a vibrant coastline that is of benefit for both wildlife and people; one where we have to accept there will be a changing coastline but we also have to find common ground.”

Some communities have taken pro-active steps themselves to fight back against coastal erosion.

After bad weather in 2012 saw bungalows destroyed and dramatic changes in the beach landscape at Hemsby, a group of locals decided to take action.

Forming the Save Hemsby Coastline group, they gathered support to buy blocks to shore up sea defences. However, co-founder Lorna Bevan from The Lacon Arms pub stressed the motivation was not purely to protect property but help preserve the beach and dunes as well as avoid salinization of the Broads and nearby Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI).

“It is not just about protecting people’s livelihoods,” says Lorna, “it is about protecting a whole eco-system too.”

Across East Anglia, Natural England is working with communities to protect the coastline. Andy Millar, Natural England senior coastal advisor for East Anglia, echoes the view that it is not just for the wildlife and landscape but also in the wider context of people, property, erosion, flooding and tourism. That, he says, involves discussions with communities and working with other government agencies such as the Environment Agency, Norfolk Wildlife Trust, the RSPB and National Trust as well as landowners.

A key element is how wildlife habitat and the natural landscape can be harnessed to make a contribution towards coastal protection.

He says: “Saltmarshes, for example, can make a huge contribution in attenuating wave energy and storm surges.”

Andy also points to the way the shingle ridge at Cley and Salthouse has been managed since the turn of the century. “After the 1953 floods the shingle ridge was bulldozed to a high profile, but in the 1990s it became apparent that the sea was simply eating that away. Now, the shingle ridge is allowed to do its own thing and reposition itself as a broader and much flatter feature and in doing so has created a more robust defence able to resist tidal surges.”

Within that is an understanding that occasionally the sea will inundate Cley and Salthouse marshes, but if the salt water can be rapidly dispersed, damage to wildlife will be limited. Following the surge of December 2013 the indications were that wildlife recovered more quickly than expected.

“It is not just about building bigger, higher, harder defences, but looking to work with the natural processes as much as we can,” explains Andy. “That is not to say there isn’t a need for defences, as people and property do have to be protected, but it is about how we can work with nature to help to do that rather than simply assume heavy engineering is the only way and in doing that, nature will help us.”

What is emerging is a changing approach to defending our coast against the elements; a new, forward-looking, partnership with Mother Nature.

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