How our wildlife can survive the rising floodwaters

ROB Macklin looks upon the changes destined for the Suffolk coast over the next decades as an opportunity – not a reason for doom and gloom.

As area manager for the RSPB he is aware of the likelihood of that sea level rise will eventually lead to the loss of stretches of freshwater habitat.

However, he believes the situation presents an opportunity to create new sites inland and to make the most of areas which change because of saltwater incursion.

“Change does not have to be for the worse and when flood walls are over-topped what will be created is saltmarsh – a habitat which has been lost in many parts of the coast.

“There will be change but let’s make it good change. If we manage the situation instead of saying no to everything then I think it can be for the good,” Rob said.

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Now 59, he lives with his wife Kathy at Aldringham. He was brought up in Hampshire but after 24 years in Suffolk now feels very settled in this part of the country.

“The coastal belt is one of the best areas in Britain for wildlife and there is so much to see within a relatively small area – I love it here,” he said.

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A cricket enthusiast, Rob formerly played for the village side at Sweffling. But his football allegiance remains with Southampton, the club he supported in his younger days and the club which knocked Ipswich Town out of this year’s FA Cup competition.

Rob looks after three cats – unusual for a man who loves wild birds so much. But, he says, the cats are “bird friendly” having been trained to be so when they were kittens.

His first job with the RSPB was in Wales and he arrived in Suffolk in 1986 to become one of the wardens at Minsmere, the society’s flagship nature reserve.

When the society bought the marshes and other habitat between Aldeburgh and Thorpeness – known as North Warren – he became the site’s manager.

Five years ago he was appointed area manager and now oversees all operations on the Suffolk coast where the society owns about 5,500 acres – making it one of the biggest landowners in the county.

“It is my responsibility to make sure that all our reserves run properly,” he said.

As sea level gradually rises, the RSPB is resigned to losing some of its freshwater habitat along the Suffolk coast – including the north marsh at Minsmere where it is considered unsustainable to finance further flood protection work – because any new works will soon be undermined by the sea. Occasional seawater flooding will change the nature of the habitat but it will still be important for wildlife.

Rob believes Havergate Island – a wildlife-rich site near Orford – will inevitably be lost to the sea within the next 20 or 30 years although money has been granted by the LIFE Fund to try to delay the process while new replacement habitat is found in a “safer” location.

“We’ve already spent a lot of money on the walls. If we hadn’t spent it the island would have gone by now. The walls suffered a lot of damage a few years ago,” he said.

Rob plays a leading role whenever the society is trying to buy further land to offset the coastal losses and this was the case with the recent purchase of the 150-acre Abbey Farm at Snape where reedbed is being restored and new areas created to provide extra habitat for the bittern and other rare species. Another new purchase nearby is 125 acres of marsh at Botany Farm where work to restore the reedbed is due to start next year.

But there are few remaining areas along the coast which could be utilised for the animals and plants which need freshwater and the environment Agency, which is responsible for making good the losses of European designated habitat, is now looking further inland – to the Norfolk Broads and the Fens.

For climate change and the predicted rise in sea level is one of the biggest issues facing the Suffolk coast. Rob believes that “hard decisions” are going to have to be made.

“Most the money available is likely to be spent protecting centres of population and we will see what is left over to protect other areas,” he said.

Natural England, supported by the RSPB, is currently assessing plans to release sea eagles along the Suffolk coast and Rob believes it would be “fantastic” to be able to see the birds locally.

Consultations are taking place with local farmers and other landowners whose main fear appears to be that the eagles will scare free-range livestock, as well as killing the odd “weakling” animal.

“It has certainly polarised views in the area. We believe the eagles are likely to have been in this area and throughout lowland England in the past and there is little doubt they would thrive here. My own experience of these eagles is that they are lazy birds and pick up a lot of carrion.

“It’s an iconic species and their introduction would undoubtedly be good for tourism – especially in the winter when the birds tend to be more visible because of the need for them to hunt within restricted hours of daylight,” Rob said.

“There’s a lot of fish in the estuaries which would be prey for the eagles. They’d probably have a go at some of the grey-legged and Canada geese which are present along this coast in their thousands – they are slow-flying, heavy birds and quite easy for an eagle to take down. They also like rabbits, especially those with myxamotosis which can’t run away.”

In an opinion poll carried out as part of the on-going consultation about 78% of people who attended “drop-in” sessions thought the reintroduction project was a good idea, Rob said.

On the coastal heathlands nightjar and woodlark numbers, rising slowly for many years, are now declining and Rob believes one factor might be the presence of many more crows in the coastal strip – attracted by the prospect of “free meals”, the feed scattered for the inmates of outdoor pig units.

The thinking is that the crows are also taking eggs and young birds. We hope to be talking to the farmers about changing the way the livestock are fed,” Rob said.

A good news story at Minsmere concerns stone curlews.

There are now five pairs of these rare birds using the nature reserve. Together, they raised seven young last year.

“It has taken 16 years to get the habitat right but it is now paying dividends,” Rob said. However, elsewhere along the coast, stone curlew numbers – always small – have declined.

In his spare time he leads bird-watching holidays abroad for the Honeyguide company run by his former RSPB colleague, Chris Durdin.

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