Tidal surge, six months on – did the seals know it was coming?

On the evening of December 5, the coastline around our region was battered in what transpired to be a tidal surge as big as the 1953 event. Dramatic scenes faced people the next morning, revealing just how high the water had come. Six months on, we can now reflect on how things are progressing on the North Norfolk Coast. And does new data reveal that the seal colony knew the surge was coming?

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Photo credit: Geoff Peabody

Victoria Egan, Countryside Manager for the Norfolk Coast  fills us in…  

In this region, the North Norfolk Coast was one of the areas badly hit. High tides associated with low pressure and prevailing winds stripped away sand dunes, flooded buildings, roads and car parks, dumping debris on the once pristine landscape, severely affecting the fragile habitats of wildlife.

Amongst the damage and heartache for many, came a good news story, after an agonising wait for the ranger team, the seals on Blakeney National Nature Reserve had fared better than feared. However, it wasn’t until recently that analysis of data normally used to monitor visitor footfall on the reserve, revealed just how remarkable their survival was. Sensors on the ground recorded a surge of activity in the hours leading up to the storm hitting, which can only be attributed to the seals moving to higher ground. Remarkable when you think about it.

Whilst vital work continues to study the impacts on wildlife sites and many habitats will take years to recover, nature once again has proved how resilient and strong it is, and has quietly got on with the business of repairing stretches of coastline itself.

Brancaster Beach has turned into a wonderful example of how the natural world can re-balance itself. Immediately after the December tidal surge, the local community helped to clear the debris that was left in the storms wake – but it was clear that the beach’s beautiful sand dunes had been stripped away, with tonnes of sand being swept into the sea. Yet, just three months on and much of the dunes had been replaced by the same waters that had destroyed them, with sand gradually rebuilding week by week.

branc6months (1)After the storm…                           Three months on…               Six months on…

Some things have needed a little more human intervention…

With the help of the Environment Agency and local landowners, we’ve managed to reduce the salinity levels in the freshwater marshes at Blakeney, which were inundated with seawater. Salt is bad for freshwater fish and other animals living on the marshes, so by flushing salt levels in the ditches and pools on the fields with freshwater, means that we can help freshwater wildlife recover. This in turn has an impact on the birds and other wildlife which feed on them.

Due to high tides and winds we have had more salt water coming onto the site since the initial surge, so the freshwater flushing is ongoing and really important, especially as so many waders are now nesting on the site. We’ve been undertaking weekly salinity checks to understand how the site is responding. Most of the site is now freshwater, though some salt levels are still higher than we would like in some of the extremities of the ditch networks and closest to where the existing breaches remain.

We’re pleased to say that within a short space of time we witnessed a kingfisher feeding on the Freshes, and little egret and water rail were caught on the webcam – all a great sign of the resilience of nature. We can now also graze cattle on the site once more, as the salt levels decline. This is important, as the cattle help to keep the conditions on the marshes suitable for breeding waders.

But there is still a lot we don’t know – what impact has the salt had to the soil wildlife, such as earthworms on which the birds feed? How quickly will they move back to the site once conditions are suitable? This is the type of information that we need to know going forwards so that the mosaic of grass, reeds and pools can support a healthy thriving diversity of wildlife once more.

As well as the wildlife, we’ve reunited boats with owners, the ranger team have moved back into the Lifeboat House on Blakeney Point, we’ve helped other organisations repair the popular Norfolk Coast path and the 20-metre long bridge at Morston Quay, which was swept away, is in the process of being replaced. And the work isn’t over yet.

The storm on that December night in 2013 showed how coastal change can be pretty dramatic. Our coastline has been changing for millions of years and generation after generation has had to cope and live with this change. The coasts that we love are the way they are because of constant change – erosion and renewal gives the seaside a vibrancy that draws millions of us every year. With more extreme weather in the decades ahead and sea levels predicted to rise by up to 86 cm in the 21st century, planning for the huge changes ahead is vital.

The National Trust’s ‘Shifting Shores’ approach describes our approach to long-term planning, working with nature and not against it, working with coastal communities to explore ways to adapt to change and even creating new coastal habitats. We need to be able to work with that change and plan for the longer term.

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