Minsmere faces changing times

MINSMERE nature reserve is today facing major changes - but more than £1million of public money is to be spent on protecting its core.

MINSMERE nature reserve is today facing major changes - but more than £1million of public money is to be spent on protecting its core.

The nationally-important scrape with the reedbeds beyond are to have their protection increased by the reinforcement of protective earthworks

But an important reedbed that provides a home for bitterns, water rails, otters, and bearded tits among other rare species could be left to the mercy of the sea.

Is that right? Should the whole reserve, which gives pleasure to hundreds of thousands of people every year, be protected from the sea?

Or should nature be left to take its course and public money be spent on developing other reserves less at risk from the sea?

The RSPB is backing the Environment Agency's proposal to allow the reedbed between the main reserve and the Dunwich cliffs to be flooded . . . eventually.

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But that will not happen overnight - and steps will be taken to ensure the sea protection is not breached until the path leading from the RSPB visitor centre to the beach is strengthened by the Environment Agency.

“The north reedbeds are the most vulnerable area - and by allowing the sea defences there to be breached, it should be possible to protect the rest of the reserve, probably for the next 50 years which is really about as far forward as we can look,” said Ian Barthorpe from the RSPB.

“It will mean the loss of some important reedbeds - but it will mean a new habitat of saltwater or brackish marsh is formed and that will be valuable for other wildlife.”

As a regular visitor to Minsmere myself, I would be very sorry to see the loss of the northern reedbeds. It is where I have had my best views of bitterns in flight and it is where reed buntings and bearded tits can be seen in the summer as you walk to the beach.

But it's difficult to argue with the proposal because the cost of ensuring the sea wall was never breached would be prohibitive.

It would be much better to spend that money on creating new reedbeds suitable for bitterns elsewhere so one bird reserve was not home to such a huge proportion of Britain's bittern population.

A new nature reserve at Lakenheath Fen on the other side of the county has attracted bitterns for the first time over the last two years - meaning the species is less vulnerable to a catastrophic single event, like flash floods at Minsmere which wiped out many nests over the May bank holiday weekend in 2007.

And while the northern reedbed at Minsmere is an important habitat, it is the scrape to the south of the path - whose protection would be strengthened by the proposal - that is the real heart of the bird reserve.

That is the home to the avocets whose arrival in the late 1940s put Minsmere on the conservationists' map.

Beyond the scrape are larger areas of reedbed that are home to the majority of the reserve's bitterns as well as marsh harriers and many other birds - and they will be protected by the strengthened earthworks.

Minsmere is certainly a nature reserve worth fighting for - but to win the battle you have to know which battlelines to defend. The Environment Agency and RSPB seem to have made the right call.

Minsmere facts.

The bird reserve itself is man-made - the iconic scrape was formed when defences were installed to prevent a German invasion in the early 1940s.

A total of 11 bitterns were recorded as booming at Minsmere this year - two on the north reedbed - out of a national total of 75 booming males.

The scrape itself has three separate lagoons - one with fresh water, one with brackish (slightly salty water), and one with sea water.

As well as birds, otters and water voles are regularly seen at Minsmere - and it is in the range of England's largest herd of red deer.