'Ground breaking' audit sheds light on north Norfolk coast's natural riches

A stoat standing on rock in saltmarsh.

A stoat standing on rock in saltmarsh. - Credit: Richard Steel/2020VISION

Some areas of grazing marsh on the north Norfolk coast at risk of sea defence failure should be 'actively converted' to saltmarsh, according to a new report.

The Biodiversity Audit of the Norfolk Coast recommends this and several other measures to aid in landscape recovery and habitat creation.

The saltmarsh at RSPB Titchwell on the north Norfolk coast.

The saltmarsh at RSPB Titchwell on the north Norfolk coast. - Credit: Matthew Usher

The ground-breaking audit, which has just been released by the UEA, reveals the full scope of this unique region's biodiversity in greater depth than ever before.

The UEA's school of environmental sciences joined forces with the Norfolk Coast Partnership (NCP) and conservation organisation the North Norfolk Coastal Group (NNCG) on the audit.

More than 60 farmers, conservation experts and others were involved in the study, which examined the spread of animals as varied as grey seals, spoonbills, scarce spiders and starlet sea anemones.

Information from the Biodiversity Audit of the Norfolk Coast, showing the different rivers in north Norfolk.

Information from the Biodiversity Audit of the Norfolk Coast, showing the different rivers in north Norfolk. - Credit: UEA

The audit reveals 10,759 distinct species have been recorded on the coast between The Wash and the eastern cliffs in the four decades since 1980.

And the area is home to more than 1,200 'priority species' – birds, mammals, invertebrates and plants – in many cases, more than other comparable habitats across England and Wales.

Andrew Jamieson, chairman of the Norfolk Coast Partnership. 

Andrew Jamieson, chairman of the Norfolk Coast Partnership. - Credit: Danielle Booden

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The audit says north Norfolk has some of the country's largest and best saltmarsh - nearly 3,900 of it - as well as grazing marsh (more than 1,130ha) and dune landscapes (541ha) which are all vital to its biodiversity. 

Professor Paul Dolman, who is part of the UEA team, said: "This work has been groundbreaking, not just because it is the first time anyone has fully quantified the important wildlife of this amazing landscape and identified what it needs.

Information from the Biodiversity Audit of the Norfolk Coast, showing the different types of wetlands in north Norfolk.

Information from the Biodiversity Audit of the Norfolk Coast, showing the different types of wetlands in north Norfolk. - Credit: UEA

"Crucially by working with land managers throughout the study we were able to develop a plan of how to expand and enhance nature along the coast.”

Another recommendation in the audit is that arable or 'intensive pastoral' areas within the coastal floodplain should be targeted for "large-scale creation of new low-input grazing marsh, fen and wetland complexes".

This would help to buffer exiting wetland from future risks including sea level rise, sequester carbon and improve visual amenity for the millions of visitors to the coast each year. 

David Lyles, chairman of the NNCG, said: "In any form of management identifying the assets is key.

David Lyles, chairman of the North Norfolk Coastal Group (NNCG).

David Lyles, chairman of the North Norfolk Coastal Group (NNCG). - Credit: Ian Burt

"The UEA team have done this admirably, as well as identifying management practices that will enhance and enable continued biodiversity along this coastal area." 

Andrew Jamieson, chairman of the NCP which co-financed the study, said the audit was just a starting point for work to further enrich north Norfolk's biodiversity.

He said: "By taking the initiative and collaborating on this ground-breaking project the NNCP is looking to lead the way with a locally generated landscape-scale program to deliver nature recovery.

"The biodiversity audit is the starting point for a collaboration that will place academic and robustly produced evidence in front of land managers and conservations working at ground level.

A spoonbill at Cley Marshes

A spoonbill in flight at Cley Marshes. - Credit: David Tipling

"It identifies important and yet often simple actions that can be taken to protect, sustain and recover biodiversity across one of the UK’s most iconic and important landscapes and the NCP absolutely encourages this integrated type of future land management.”

Other recommendations in the report include:

- Wet grassland habitats should be managed to give a full range of habitat structures across different areas, from short swards needed by flagship breeding waders, through to tall swards and shrubby areas that are important to priority wildlife but may currently be undervalued.

- Drainage ditch banks should have shallow - not steep - profiles and margins that differ in vegetation height/density as well as areas of bare substrate.

- In dune and shingle systems, sand mobility and disturbance should be encouraged to avoid open micro-habitats, that are needed by some important wildlife, being smothered by dense vegetation. This can happen due to increases in nutrient deposition, loss of rabbits, climate change and invasive species.