The stars of the show are the birds, which arrive in such variety and number that even the most reluctant birdwatcher will be amazed. There is something to see all year round; in spring, some of the waders and wildfowl depart as new species such as grey plover arrive, stopping off on their way back from Africa. During summer breeding birds on the coast provide the main interest, especially huge colonies of tern. Autumn sees birds stopping on their long return journey south, but it is in the winter when the county provides some of the year’s most unmissable spectacles – sights that are unrivalled anywhere else in the UK.
The main draw is the beautiful coast, an almost 100-mile arc that curls round from the North Sea into The Wash, the square-mouthed estuary where Norfolk meets Lincolnshire. The Norfolk coast provides important feeding grounds and safe roost sites, and at this time of year it teems with wildfowl, waders and gulls, as well as seaducks, divers and grebes.
Cast your eyes across The Wash this winter and it is likely there will be as many as 400,000 birds there at any one time. It’s home to scores of Bewick’s and whooper swans, but by far the most numerous birds are the pink-footed geese, with 100,000 recently arriving from Iceland and Greenland. Watching them erupt in huge, noisy numbers and pass low overhead as they head inland at dawn to feed is one of the sights of winter.
Novice birders needn’t even worry about where to head, as Snettisham RSPB reserve runs Geese Galore events, where guides help you enjoy the spectacle. Snettisham is also home to another unmissable spectacle – that of waders, most typically knots, coming off the flats at high tide, rising in colossal balls of tens of thousands, silhouetted beautifully against the sky. But it is Titchwell Marsh that is the RSPB’s most popular Norfolk reserve, visited by around 100,000 people each year. On the foreshore you might see twite, snow bunting and shorelark, while you may also hear the deep boom of the elusive bittern sheltering in the reed beds.
The bittern has been a cause for concern for the RSPB for years, its red conservation status making it one of the most threatened species in the UK, but numbers are improving. There are now around 50 breeding males in the UK, around a quarter of which call Norfolk home.
However, there are changes taking place at Titchwell – the RSPB recently announced it is spending £1.5m on a managed retreat there. The encroaching sea has put the mix of brackish marshes, freshwater marshes and reedbeds at risk of inundation. Because of this, up to a third of the RSPB reserve will be given up to protect the rest of the landscape and, to compensate for some of the losses, further territory will be given over to wetland inland. Chris Durdin, RSPB eastern England spokesman, said: “The alterations will make the reserve more robust and ready to cope with future changes. The area was salt marsh before we came along, so essentially we are putting the clock back. Some amount of change in Norfolk is inevitable in the future. We will have to adapt, but we can’t have catastrophic loss without finding replacement habitats.” Coastal change is very apparent at Blakeney on the north coast. Where the village once stood open to the sea, it is now protected by a 3.5-mile sand and shingle spit that keeps growing. For more than 60 years, Jim Temple’s family has been running boat trips to Blakeney Point to see the huge number of common and grey seals that congregate there. He said: “One thing that always amazes people is to see how far the spit has grown in just the past few years.
“But it’s the seals most people come to see. Christmas, when the grey seals have their pups, is a magical time. They can be quite inquisitive and swim very close to the boat. We might have around 200 greys this winter and that is some sight.”
The significance of the Norfolk coast as a wildlife haven was realised in 1926 when an area of marsh at Cley – next door to Blakeney – was bought to be held “in perpetuity as a bird breeding sanctuary”. This formed the blueprint for conservation as we know it today and the first of the country’s 47 Wildlife Trusts was formed. Norfolk Wildlife Trust (NWT) has grown considerably since then and now cares for 50 nature reserves and other protected sites, including 6 miles of coastline, nine Norfolk broads, nine National Nature Reserves and five ancient woodlands. Last year a new visitor centre was opened at NWT’s Cley Marshes, incorporating an information service, café, hides and even a remote controlled wildlife camera.
Many people have chosen to live in north Norfolk to further their passion for wildlife, and because of this, many locals are very knowledgable and offer a warm welcome to visitors. It also means there is a huge pool of volunteers to help out – there are around 14 staff and at least 40 volunteers at the RSPB’s Titchwell Marsh and Snettisham.
There are sites to spot wildlife inland too – look out for finches, tits and woodpeckers in the winter woods, and make time to explore the man-made 500-acre wetland at Pensthorpe. Many people will know it as the home of 2009’s Springwatch. In winter the ducklings may have flown the nest but the array of goosander, shoveler, pintail, gadwall and goldeneye leave much to wonder at.
However, it is the Broads that provide Norfolk’s other huge wildlife draw. The lakes, rivers, reed beds, fens and grazing marshes combined form our largest protected wetland. For a true spectacle head to Hickling – the largest and wildest of the 60 broads – where there are around 30 cranes and the winter raptor roost can contain up to 100 marsh harriers.
But the Broads are under threat. Parts of the area will become increasingly salinated in the future by the creeping sea waters, changing their habitats and the wildlife they attract forever. “The future is a big concern,” said Brendon Joyce, NWT director. “Already you can see it is becoming increasingly salinated at Hickling. Another concern is sea flooding and the complete loss of coastal habitats. Some places are under severe threat.”
The government has made commitments to hold the line of the Norfolk coast until at least 2050, but already defences are showing signs of weakening. One option Natural England is considering is to build new defences inland and surrender a 9-mile stretch of coast between Happisburgh and Winterton to the sea, resulting in 25 square miles becoming flooded and several villages, as well as wildlife reserves, being lost forever. “The current policy is focused on defending towns and not habitats; things don’t look great,” said Mr Joyce.
Thankfully, as Norfolk is one of the least densely populated counties in England, there is some scope for replacing lost habitats elsewhere – NWT is working with the Environment Agency to help restore 60 acres of arable land at Hilgay, near Downham Market, to wetland and grazing marsh. This is to directly compensate for the loss of land being experienced at Cley.
But the fact is that the rich tapestry of landscape and wildlife in Norfolk has changed, adapting beyond comprehension over the centuries. The evolution of the area will continue in the years to come, but whatever the future holds for this birder’s mecca, there will always be something truly magical to see. Just don’t forget your binoculars.
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