December 7 2013 Latest news:
Saturday, October 19, 2013
The European Union often comes in for barbed British criticism but even the most Euro-sceptic Brussels basher would surely be impressed by a major Suffolk wildlife project that has the Eurocrats to thank for much of its funding.
A grant totalling about £900,000 of EU cash was made available for the ambitious scheme to enhance nature on the National Trust’s Orford Ness National Nature Reserve and the RSPB’s Havergate Island reserve that lies nearby in the River Ore and is sheltered by the Ness’s internationally important 10-mile “crooked finger” of a shingle spit.
Cynics may point to the UK’s contribution to the EU pot and claim the money – made available under the EU LIFE programme – simply came back “home”. If it was not for the European factor, however, the chances are that the partnership project would never have materialised.
But materialise it most certainly has and its progress was showcased in a recent workshop event attended by delegates from around Europe.
Representatives from Natural England, the National Trust and the RSPB were joined by Dutch and Belgian conservationists as well as British naturalists with connections to Chesil Beach in Dorset and Dungeness in Kent – both hugely significant wildlife sites that have similar habitats to Orford Ness.
David Mason, the EU LIFE project manager for the National Trust in the East of England, said the trust and the RSPB had been proud to host the event and to show what had been achieved at the respective sites since the funding had been awarded in 2010.
The 50% grant from the EU Life programme had been given in support of the Alde-Ore Future for Wildlife project to sustain and enhance habitats and species of European importance, said Mr Mason. The programme was an EU “financial instrument” used for nature and biodiversity projects and the funding was backed up by the SITA Trust, a Biffa Award (for Havergate), the Environment Agency, the National Trust’s Neptune Coastline Fund and other funding from the National Trust.
“The three-day workshop was about showing what has been achieved in the project which is in its fourth year and its final stages, and also to exchange ideas with people from other parts of Europe, our neighbours across the North Sea,” said Mr Mason.
“We looked at the improvements that have been made on Orford Ness’s and Havergate’s water level management infrastructure and the results that have been achieved in increasing the numbers of wading birds using the wetlands.
“Last year the invertebrate life in our lagoons on Orford Ness was studied – such as the lagoon sand shrimp, the lagoon cockle and the starlet sea anemone – and there were increases and they will also build up even more over time. The invertebrate levels particularly encouraged avocets.
“We have completed the work on Orford Ness’s water level management and now we will be looking to see the results of that for breeding waders next spring but already the wetlands are being used by increased number of wildfowl that will use the area over the winter.
“Water management on the site was formerly a problem due to areas drying out by July and so feeding became a problem for breeding waders. We are now able to manage the water levels much better and year-round after putting in a system of ditches, scrapes and storage lagoons.
“Now more attention will be paid to the grassland areas and we will be looking to create a mosaic of wetland and grassland, a mosaic of habitats within what is now an area that has a lot of rush and tall grass that is often inhospitable for breeding birds.” The aim of the workshop event had been to highlight how the work had been done and what it had and will achieve, to discuss and get feedback and to gauge between all the parties how the wider public felt about wide -ranging issues such as wetland management and coastal protection, he said. An important issue investigated and discussed was access to Orford Ness – and just how sensitive its vegetated shingle habitat is. Specialised shingle-dwelling plants on the site included sea campion, sea kale and sea pea, together with a range of lichens, some of which were extremely rare.
These plants each had a unique character that was at once tough and fragile – tough in the sense that they had evolved to thrive in a harsh environment but also fragile because they were extremely vulnerable to being bruised and broken by unwary footfall, Mr Mason said.
“Sometimes people do not realise quite what makes Orford Ness so unique. It is a national nature reserve that really is pretty special. It shelters the whole Alde-Ore Estuary from the effects of the sea and the whole place is full of rare species that have a fragility and vulnerability about them.
“The workshop studied and discussed how we have tried to engage the local community and involve people and show that people will be more receptive if you deal with them in a positive manner and bring them into it all rather than just impose things,” he said.
“We have a duty to look after the environment but also we have a duty to at least try to make sure that people value it too and to show them that they have a role to play – the delegates discussed these points and we exchanged ideas and we are sure that this is the best way forward.”
The philosophy of partnership ran through the workshop and through the wider work of the EU LIFE programme. “In a local sense we have been looking at the wider Alde-Ore Estuary, not just Orford Ness and Havergate Island in isolation, as birds that use both sites also use the wider estuary so we are trying to involve as wide a range of people from right across the estuary complex in how we are working.
“Similarly, the workshop showed that there has to be an international dimension to conservation work – birds, for example, do not keep within political boundaries, they move to and fro across the North Sea.
“Therefore, all the conservation work that is going on here and in our neighbouring North Sea countries is relevant to all of us. There is a new understanding emerging about how important this is and the delegates all realised that we are all part of a very big system,” said Mr Mason.” We will be continuing to work together in the future – we cannot work in isolation either from our partners in the immediate estuary or from our partners across Europe.”
Island upgrade produces year-round boost for birds and people
Havergate Island became an RSPB nature reserve in 1948 and is famous for being one of the two original sites to which avocets returned to breed after an absence from Britain of more than 100 years – the other being Minsmere.
It is a haven for breeding, wintering and passage birds and has a popular colony of brown hares. However, the effects of weather and tides had reduced the availability of suitable habitat for nesting birds, creating cliffs on islets in the lagoons and silting up channels. Meanwhile, it was difficult to maintain high enough water levels due to sluices that worked poorly, increasingly dry springs and summers and increased salinity - reducing populations of key invertebrates on which avocets and other waders feed.
On Havergate, the project’s aim was to help wildlife and improve the visitor experience by changing the shape of the nesting islets and lagoons and improving water quality and management by installing new sluices and water controls. New islands have aided the flow of water around the existing lagoon system. About 20,000 cubic metres of spoil was moved and rearranged to form about six hectares of new islets. The ditch network that transports water around the lagoons was improved, along with the crossing points to enable management access.
The sluices that allowed river water to flow through the system were in a state of disrepair and difficult to operate safely. Six sluices were rebuilt in the project.
Previously the lagoons suffered from significant hyper-salinity during the summer, which had a detrimental effect on the breeding success of waders by limiting the population of lagoon invertebrates.
Improved water management has led to better regulation of salinity and increased the food resource for birds year-round.
Spirit of co-operation and partnership on a site that once played key roles in conflict
Bought by the National Trust in 1993, Orford Ness is internationally recognised for its shingle and marshland habitats and species, along with its atmospheric and stark reminders of conflict, secretive atomic weapons research and the Cold War.
The marsh habitats are not classic freshwater coastal marshes. The only freshwater input to the site – and, indeed, Havergate Island – is from rainfall. There had been sea water seepage through the marsh-side clays walls and older sluices for many years and periodic inundation from flooding, most notably in the notorious floods of 1953. The result was that the clay soils contained much salt and all the water was brackish.
To improve the site’s water management systems and its habitats, earth-moving and water control work began in October 2011, at the same time as it began on Havergate. Huge diggers and dumpers began to transform both sites.
At Orford Ness they had to be brought in from the north via the land link to the mainland, a five-mile shingle track. By spring 2012 about 25,000 cubic metres of soil had been moved.
On Airfield Marshes, the site of the former military airfield that was drained and levelled in 1913, low earth bunds now hold water in about four hectares of deepened scrapes, between 20cm and 50cm deep, linked by a 2.6km network of new ditches with 18 water control structures. Sluices have been built and an old pumping system, originally built in 1916, has been rebuilt.
The benefit of being able to control water levels and keep the areas wet was immediately seen in the following summer and autumn with some of highest waders and wildfowl numbers recorded for the site. Ironically, this first spring and summer season after construction was one of the wettest on record and the main issue on Orford Ness was too much water.
Additional work in late summer this year involved the installation of a 3.9km network of shallow footdrains to enhance the breeding and feeding opportunities within grassland areas for declining species such as lapwing and redshank.