Two important questions for conservation in Norfolk and like many good questions not easy to answer!
Norfolk is full of contradictions – one of the driest counties in England but supporting probably the most important lowland freshwater wetland habitats in the country. A county dominated by intensive arable croplands of wheat, barley and sugar beet, yet famous for its wildlife riches, especially its bird life which draws visitors from across the country.
So just how do we measure the importance of Norfolk for wildlife? Well those who work in nature conservation would probably start by highlighting the number of nationally and internationally important sites found in Norfolk. These include:
163 Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs are the country’s best sites for wildlife or geology)
8 wetlands designated as internationally important under the Ramsar convention
22 National Nature Reserves
12 Special Areas for Conservation (SACs form part of a European network making a significant contribution to conserving the species and habitats most in need of protection in Europe)
9 Special Protection Areas. (SPAs are designated for their importance for birds at a European level)
Sites designated as SAC or SPA are sometimes referred to as Natura 2000 sites which means they are some of the most important sites in Europe and protected under European Union (EU) law.
So many designations! And they do make conservation sound dreadfully dull. Perhaps a simpler way of explaining the importance of Norfolk for wildlife is by highlighting some of the species that we have a responsibility to safeguard as we hold a significant amount of the national or international total. In conservation we often define international importance as holding more than 1% of the global or European population and national importance as holding more than 1% of the UK population. So for birds we have nine areas which hold birds in internationally important numbers and these include the Ouse Washes, The Wash, the North Norfolk coast, Breydon Water, the Broads and Breckland.
Our Norfolk wetlands support 25 species of birds in internationally important numbers. Let’s take the Wash as an example. This one area supports more than 25% of the British wintering total of bar-tailed godwits and in some months a very significant per cent of the world’s knot. In most years the Wash will support 15 species of birds in internationally important numbers. Then there’s the North Norfolk coast. It supports globally significant numbers (up to 40% of the world population) of pink-footed geese and a significant per cent of the world’s brent geese. In summer our coast has more breeding sandwich terns than any other county in the UK and over 1% of the global breeding population of little terns. I could go on – the Broads supports more than 40% of the UK’s common cranes and nationally important numbers of bearded tits and marsh harriers. The Brecks is home to 40% of the UK’s stone curlews and Norfolk as a whole supports around 25% of the UK’s avocets, 10% of woodlarks and Cetti’s warblers, and 5% of the UK’s nightjars. So yes, it really is true that Norfolk punches above its weight when it comes to importance for birds.
But surely Norfolk isn’t just important for birds? Do we support any species which are classed as globally endangered? Well European eels are classed as critically endangered globally, white-clawed crayfish still found in rivers like the Wensum and Glaven as globally endangered, and the starlet sea anemones, found in saline lagoons at Cley and Salthouse, as globally vulnerable. We also support more breeding grey seals than any other county in England and the UK holds around 40% of the world’s grey seals.
What about habitats? Our saltmarshes and intertidal mudflats are some of the best in Europe, with the Wash the most important estuary for birds in the UK, and one of the most significant in Europe. These areas are truly globally important as key parts of the great migration route, known as the East Atlantic flyway, which links the Arctic, where many of our waders breed, to Africa, where many of them winter.
Norfolk also has wonderful chalk streams and rivers. As there are only around 250 of these in the world we should treat them as globally precious. And out at sea the chalk reef, extending from Weyboune to Overstrand, is one of the most important North Sea habitats: rocky-reef, sea-bed, marine landscapes are rare as hen’s teeth in the North Sea basin.
There is much more I could highlight. Norfolk has 16% of England’s reedbeds, some of the UK’s best ancient, bluebell woods together with wonderful - and nationally important - heathlands and mires. Broadland fens support the UK’s only swallowtail butterflies, the best national populations of fen orchids, rare aquatic plants like stoneworts and holly-leaved naiad and scarce Norfolk hawker dragonflies. Indeed recent biodiversity audits of both the Brecks and the Broad show these areas both supporting more than
20% of UK species of highest conservation concern. Our natterjack toads, on nature reserves like NWT Holme Dunes, are of national importance and of course the wonderful Holkham NNR supports the UK’s only regular breeding populations of spoonbills, now joined by great-white egrets, also nationally rare. In total around 16,300 species have been recorded in Norfolk and 2,324 of these are classified as species of conservation concern meaning they are rare, threatened or specially protected by law.
So much to celebrate and I haven’t even touched on the nationally rare plants that grow in the Brecks. Norfolk is exceptional for wildlife and with this comes an exceptional responsibility to care for our environment and pass its great richness and diversity on safely to future generations.
On to my second question: just how important is all this wildlife to Norfolk? Personally I can’t imagine a Norfolk without the arrival of great skeins of geese noisily passing overhead sounding the arrival of autumn, or without the wonders of bluebells woods filled with bird song in spring and great open vistas of heathland coloured pink with heathers in late summer.
But Norfolk’s nature isn’t just beautiful, it’s essential. In modern jargon the natural capital of Norfolk provides vital ecosystem services: our saltmarshes and sand-dunes provide free of charge vital sea defences; our pollinators enable Norfolk farmers to produce profitable crops of oil seed rape, bean and peas; our wetlands store water preventing flooding downstream; and our woods, peatlands and soils act as carbon sinks, helping lessen the impact of human pollution on the climate.
Norfolk’s high quality environment and wildlife spectacles are the bedrock of our tourism industry. So for these reasons, and many others, looking after Norfolk’s wildlife must be a very high priority, and not just for conservation charities like Norfolk Wildlife Trust, but also for farmers and businesses who benefit from a high quality environment. Indeed all of us who are lucky enough to live in Norfolk depend on the natural world for clean air, pure water, climate regulation, protection from flooding and recycling our wastes.
I hope, like me, you find the beauty of our wildlife adds hugely to the pleasure of living here but please also spread the message that Norfolk’s wildlife is not just pretty, it really matters. It matters internationally and globally. It supports much of Norfolk’s economy. And it is vital for our health and well-being.
David North, Head of People and Wildlife at Norfolk Wildlife Trust