Our changing coast
THE next 12 months could be a defining period for the future of wildlife sites along the region's coastline as the impact of climate change and the long-term impact of last November's devastating floods become clearer.
THE next 12 months could be a defining period for the future of wildlife sites along the region's coastline as the impact of climate change and the long-term impact of last November's devastating floods become clearer, as ALASDAIR MCGREGOR reports.
IMPORTANT wildlife sites along the Suffolk and Norfolk coast are facing an increasingly uncertain future as the risk of flooding continues to grow, experts have warned.
As sea levels rise due to the changing climate and the east coast continues to slowly sink, vital nature reserves are becoming more vulnerable to saltwater flooding, threatening the wealth of wildlife there.
In Suffolk a search for a new wildlife area to compensate for the expected loss of freshwater habitat between Dunwich and Walberswick has started.
Clean-up operations after the devastating tidal surge floods of November 1 last year are continuing, but experts concede that efforts to hold back the rising tides are proving increasingly ineffective.
The sea has several times during the past ten weeks breached shingle sea defences protecting Benacre National Nature Reserve (NNR), north of Southwold, spilling more saltwater into freshwater reedbed areas. The average rate of erosion is between eight and 14 metres a year and there is still much of the current winter to come.
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Wildlife organisations are constantly working with the Environment Agency (EA) to try to improve and build flood defences, but with a finite pot of cash, some projects will never get off the ground.
For example, the EA has just shelled out £20,000 on repairing four breaches of shingle bank - which acts as a natural sea defence - along the Suffolk coast, but has stressed it was a one-off project because maintaining it in the long-term is unsustainable.
Brendan Joyce, director of the Norfolk Wildlife Trust said: “Flooding is an increasing and ongoing concern. At Holme Dunes, on the north Norfolk coast, there has been a massive erosion of dunes and rising sea levels. It may flood any day - and is probably inevitable.
“Although conservation is one of our main priorities, there are some situations where we cannot fight nature and, as such, the future of Holme Dunes is one we will have to adapt to, rather than shape ourselves. At Cley Marshes, it is a similar story and the marshes are gradually being reclaimed by the sea. Sea levels are rising and the natural protection of the shingle ridge is eroding. In the future the area will change and become increasingly subject to inter-tidal influences.”
The floods of November 1, which affected large swathes of Suffolk and Norfolk, were caused when high tides were whipped up by a 1.75m surge of water, driven down the North Sea by a Force 11 storm.
While the storm was still regarded as an exceptional event, Steve Western, a forecaster at UEA-based Weatherquest, said the east coast would become increasingly susceptible to flooding.
Global warming means sea levels were rising by a least 2mm every year while the east coast sinks by 1-2cms every 100 years, Mr Western said.
He added: “The land is sinking and the sea is rising so the coastline has become more exposed and storms will have a greater impact. We are also in for slightly windier times.”
There is an acceptance that nature's forces will change the eco-system of parts of the east coast forever, but the Environment Agency, which is responsible for overseeing flood defence work, is still actively pursuing projects to preserve sites.
It is currently holding consultations over the future strategy for flood defences in Dunwich and Walbers-wick, the results of which should be made public in April or May.
Area flood risk manager Mark Johnson pointed to other projects, such as the £8m coastal defence scheme around Southwold and work to improve drainage at Cley.
However, he stressed the EA had to fight hard for government money to carry out such schemes, which would become more important as flood risks increased.
Mr Johnson said: “It's a challenging future in terms of what we are doing and we do factor climate change into our schemes.
“We are competing nationally for a limited amount of money, so it is competitive. If we had the money there would be more things we could do.”
Alan Miller, site manager for Suffolk Wildlife Trust's coastal reserves, said that while the infiltration of saltwater would create a different type of nature site for future generations, it was important to maintain freshwater sites, such as Dingle Marshes, for as long as possible.
“We are looking at it day by day, but we will be losing freshwater habitat, which is extremely valuable. Freshwater habitats are getting very squeezed on the east coast and it is a challenge. It's the changing face of our nature reserves where one habitat is lost, but another is in the early stages of being created.”
Where protection against the sea is no longer viable, wildlife trusts have the option of creating new sites further inland, such as the RSPB reserve at Lakenheath.
It is still hoped the inland reedbeds of Dingle can be protected, but a search for land, known as a compen-satory habitat, has already taken place in readiness for serious further flooding at the site. Meanwhile, work to find an area to make up for any loss of freshwater sites at Cley, in Norfolk, has already taken place.
However, Mr Miller said this sort of activity could also be fraught with difficulties. “We don't want to destroy one habitat to create another.”
One of the most emotive and significant threats from saltwater floods, is to the future of one of Britain's rarest birds, the bittern.
High numbers of fish were killed when saltwater infiltrated the marshes at Dingle, in Suffolk, reducing the food stock for species such as bitterns and making it less likely for them to breed.
Bitterns, once common across the region, are so secretive that it is sometimes difficult to ascertain how many exist. What is clear, though, is the Suffolk coast is a major site for the bird and national figures for 2006 revealed 20 out of 44 booming (calling) males were recorded there. Nine were present at the RSPB reserve at Minsmere - the most important breeding site in the country - and three at Dingle. Of the 27 known bittern nests, 18 were along the Suffolk coast.
The Suffolk coast is also important for marsh harriers and bearded tits.
RSPB spokesman and Star columnist Ian Barthorpe said: “There won't be any indication of the impact on the wildlife for several months until during and after the breeding season. Then, we'll be able to get a better feel for the long-term effects.
“It's a case of flushing the saltwater out and waiting for the species to return. What is worrying is that we still have another three months of winter storms to get through and we don't know what they might bring.”
Minsmere only narrowly avoided a major catastrophe on November 1 after saltwater washed away dunes between Dunwich Cliffs and the reserve's sea wall. While the freshwater reedbeds were not breached by the floodwater, they are now more vulnerable to future tide surges.
As well as the threat to bitterns there are also fears for other species, such as water voles, which have not returned to Dingle since November 1.
This year is likely to be the warmest year on record globally, forecasters have predicted.
Climate change experts said the global temperature is expected to be 0.54C above the long-term average of 14C.
There is a 60pc probability that 2007 will be as warm, or warmer, than the current warmest year, they said.
That was 1998, when temperatures were 0.52C above the long-term average.
The forecast comes from the Met Office, which joins forces with the University of East Anglia each January to issue predictions for the global surface temperature for the coming year.
Kate Hopkins, from Met Office Consulting, said: “This new information represents another warning that climate change is happening around the world.”
The forecast follows news that 2006 was the warmest year on record across the UK.