Cley Marshes – after the Flood is a piece I wrote in December 2013 for Norfolk Wildlife Trust’s blog following the massive North Sea surge which caused so much devastation along the East coast. At that time I volunteered at NWT Cley Marshes every week, and wasn’t quite sure what I would find when I got there……..
I didn’t know quite what to expect as I crested the rise along Old Woman Lane. Normally the first glimpse of Cley Marshes is welcome relief after the drive from Norwich, but today I knew the reserve had changed and suffered greatly at the expense of last week’s storm surge. First impressions from a distance were not too bad; certainly the salt water had been sluiced off efficiently, leaving behind the familiar patchwork of meadow, reed bed and shallow pools. But after a few seconds I registered that perhaps the brown staining was a little too extensive, and then realised that something more fundamental had changed. The shingle ridge had gone. Where 7 days ago a range of jagged packed pebble peaks blocked the reserve from the sea, now there was nothing, the whole beach had been remodelled. The North Sea, calm and blue today lay ominously within full view, with nothing of any substance blocking its path should it once more become the raging, tumultuous, storm-tossed maelstrom that assaulted this vulnerable wetland just a week ago.
Although the reserve had been closed to the public to allow a full damage assessment to take place, I was tasked with walking the accessible perimeter pathways to engage with any people that may wish to understand what was being done in terms of remedial work. A trudge towards East Bank showed very clearly how far and deep the inundation had penetrated, with debris strewn across the reed marsh and by the side of the road. Portions of hides, fencing, and other infrastructure lay haphazardly across the flattened roadside scrub, which was piled high with broken reed stems and coated heavily with dark slimy mud. The freshwater drain was clogged with sludge, and huge chunks had been gouged from the East Bank itself. All in all a rather dispiriting sight.
The beach: a scene now littered with chunks of concrete and the exposed underlying compacted bed of dark mud. An unveiled line of fence posts, which must have marked the historic boundary of the reserve, can now be seen on the seaward side of the shingle; the whole protective bank has effectively been swept inland for 50 metres, leaving behind a scoured sandy underlay. Oh, and we seem to have lost the beach car park!
Splattering my way an hour later back along the coast road, I overheard a walker say to his mate something along the lines of ‘They’ve got a heck of a job clearing this up’. The enigmatic ‘they’ so referenced translates to Norfolk Wildlife Trust I guessed. And he was right; it is a heck of a job. There will be boardwalks, fences and gates to repair, hides to rebuild and clean, flood banks to plug, untold tons of rancid vegetation to clear away, footpaths to restore, signage to replace….I could go on, but I’m sure you get the picture. And that is just the stuff I noticed as a layman walking around. There will be more technical issues to grapple with if we are to return Cley Marshes to the richly varied wildlife haven we all know and love.
But you know, despite all the doom and gloom, I sense there is a real desire to get stuck into the restoration programme. Everyone I spoke to seemed to have the attitude that whilst you can’t stand in the way of nature’s relentless stride, you can certainly execute a well-timed sliding tackle and arrest its progress for a while. It has all happened before, will happen again, but that is no reason to give up. The marsh is still there, freshwater will continue to flow across the reserve, which, given time, will recover to its former bountiful glory.
And in defiance of all that has happened, the birdlife today was prolific. Skeins of Pink-footed Geese flew across a cloudless sky all day, searching for likely looking fields full of beet tops or somewhere to roost. Flocks of Lapwing and Golden Plover spangled the scrapes, whilst Little Egrets fought over sticklebacks stranded in salt water pools. A Peregrine sailed slowly over my head, flushing parties of displaced Reed Buntings, Linnets and Meadow Pipits from the Eye. The Stonechat pair were still flitting around in their favoured patch of scrub, and the familiar female Kestrel sat preening atop a stunted elder, bathed in the warm glow of the golden afternoon sun. Even in its altered state, Cley still provides an essential home for many, and will continue to do so for decades to come.
That was all just over 7 years ago. Today the reserve is as good as ever, and in fact the need to clear up tonnes of debris provided an opportunity to create a few new pools and scrapes. Also, the newly formed shingle bank that encroached onto the actual reserve was fenced off and almost immediately provided valuable nesting habitat for Avocets and Little Ringed Plovers. It is indeed an ill wind that blows no good. Increased salinity on the reserve seemed to result in much lower productivity with breeding birds the following spring, but this has subsequently recovered.
Ironically and tragically, just a month or so after the storm surge, a Pavehawk helicopter (Jolly 22) from RAF Lakenheath crashed along the shingle ridge during a night time exercise. It was flying low and spooked a flock of roosting geese that ploughed into the aircraft and resulted in it virtually disintegrating on impact. The loss of life hung heavily on all concerned (still does), including reserve staff that kept the restaurant in the reserve centre open as a refuge for USAF personnel involved in the salvage operation. To create vehicular access to the crash site, the USAF bulldozed the shingle from the car park which would otherwise probably have remained submerged under a metre of shingle for a considerable time.
There will be further incursions by the sea in future years resulting, ultimately, in the reserve becoming some form of intertidal saltmarsh. Until that time it continues to be the jewel in Norfolk Wildlife Trust’s crown and is a wonderful place to visit.
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