Silver lining emerges in the wake of damaging 2013 North Sea surge
- Credit: Archant
The flooding that hit the East Anglian coast almost four years ago is still raw in the memory of many who were affected by it, but the event has triggered some positive reactions - including a major engineering project near Aldeburgh.
As the tumultuously surging North Sea caused trauma and tragedy around East Anglia’s coast on December 5 and 6, 2013, it was difficult to imagine anything beneficial transpiring from such a cruel illustration of nature’s immense forces.
Homes and businesses were inundated in the biggest UK storm surge for 60 years. In Suffolk, the Alde Estuary bore the brunt, with Snape properties badly affected and the character of Suffolk Wildlife Trust’s Hazlewood Marshes nature reserve being changed for ever by surging sea water crashing in through massive sea wall breaches.
The surge is still raw in the consciousness of the coastal communities that were so seriously affected, and yet silver linings to this particularly malevolent event can now be detected - especially around the Alde. For example, new resilience and management strategies are being explored by the Alde & Ore Estuary Partnership, Hazlewood Marshes has become an important inter-tidal wildlife refuge and now a major engineering project that largely owes its funding to the storm surge has just been completed, generating massive sea defence and wildlife benefits.
The Water Management Alliance has announced that the project it has undertaken to protect the vast swathe of Aldeburgh Town Marsh has finished after two years of work.
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Giles Bloomfield, area manager for the alliance, said the work on the estuary flood embankment to the south of Aldeburgh was part of the start of the delivery of the Alde & Ore Estuary Partnerships long-term management plan for the area. In the 2013 surge the embankment was “on the point of overtopping” and, following the event, the Government released £600,000 for the work through the Flood Recovery Fund.
The alliance had upgraded 1.5km of sea wall - from 900 metres west of Slaughden to West Row Point - to be resilient to an event far greater than the floods seen in 1953 or 2013, he said.
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A new borrow dyke had been created - the previous one had been infilled - and the new water course was five times the width of the original one, enhancing the area for a range of wildlife species. At 12 metres wide the new, re-seeded embankment was about twice the width of the previous one - creating a better walking experience for people when it was reopened to the public - and it was also higher, protecting the marshes from a one-in-200-years event compared to one-in-50-years previously.
Pete Roberts, operations engineer for alliance member the East Suffolk Drainage Board, which also provided some funding for the project, said the scale of the work had been enormous. “The wall has a bigger footprint now - it is higher and wider than previously - and something like 275,000 tonnes of clay material had to be dug and moved,” he said. “It is the biggest engineering project to come out of the 2013 flood in Suffolk.”
Aldeburgh Town Marshes had significant wildlife interest and this had to be taken into account before and during the work, the alliance said. The area was rich in breeding and wintering wading birds, and there was a “very healthy” population of water voles in the drainage channels on the landward side of the sea wall that needed to be infilled during the engineering work.
Britain’s fastest declining wild mammal, water voles were legally protected, so before any work could begin all the individuals in the area were trapped and relocated strictly under licence from Natural England. A total of 62 water voles were caught and various data were recorded, with the mammals being released into pens with food and bedding. The pens were located in a series of managed ditches to the north of the site and were specially designed to allow the voles to burrow out within a few days, enabling them to make new homes in the adjacent ditch system.
Large numbers of other small mammals and grass snakes, adders and lizards also inhabited the area. “Advance mitigation works from early spring through until early summer were required to trap and relocate all species to purpose-built release and holding areas. The existing flood embankment vegetation was managed in specific way to allow easy trapping of affected species before eventual removal of all vegetation to allow the main construction works to commence,” said the alliance.
“After the trapping and relocation was complete, our team was then able to start work. All material to build the improved estuary flood embankment was sourced locally by excavating a new dyke system behind the existing flood embankment. As the site develops and establishes with vegetation, this will provide a new habitat within the marshes for a large range of species. This newly created habitat will also mean that the local water vole population will be able to expand into these areas,” it added.