This guest blog post has been produced by a Junior Winner of this year's Orwell Youth Prize, a writing prize for young people in school years 8-13 (or equivalent), which uses the writing of George Orwell as a starting point to inspire young people to think and write about the world they live in. The theme for the 2021 prize was 'A New Direction: Starting Small', with William Walker choosing to write about the importance of wetlands to our environment.
On the muddy salt marshes of Titchwell, waders jostle for space: mousy brown dunlin with down-curved beaks; little silvery-grey knot; inquisitive redshanks with bright scarlet legs and speckled fronts; oystercatchers cheerfully pipe, digging their vibrant tangerine-coloured bills into the saltmarsh; miniscule sanderlings, like tiny clockwork mice, sprint across the mudflats.
Like many of Norfolk's wetlands, RSPB Titchwell Nature Reserve is vulnerable, under threat from the effects of climate change, including sea level rise and increasing storm surge tides. The frequency of natural hazards like floods and coastal storm surges has more than doubled worldwide in just 35 years. According to the Wildlife Trusts, we have already lost 90% of our wetland habitats in the last 100 years.
Wetlands habitat loss is generally ignored, with disproportionate attention placed on rainforests. The Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust says that 40% of the world's wildlife depends on freshwater wetlands, but we are losing these valuable habitats three times faster than forests. The time bomb of climate change is ticking, but with imagination, we can mitigate some of its effects on wetlands. A new direction would be to protect Norfolk's wetlands, starting small, by creating new wetlands.
So why do wetlands matter? Wetlands help mitigate the impact of climate change with their ability to store large amounts of carbon and also protect against extreme weather events, by soaking up water, protecting people and property. If these ecosystems are not protected, they could release huge amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere and speed up the effects of climate change.
And why specifically are Norfolk’s wetlands vital? The aforementioned dunlin, knot, redshanks, oystercatchers and sanderlings are all amber listed species, meaning they are species causing concern because they are in decline. Norfolk's globally significant wetlands support 25 bird species in internationally significant amounts. According to the Ramsar Convention up to 40% of the world's species live and breed in wetlands, but more than 25% of wetlands plants and animals are in danger of extinction, including water voles, lost from 94% of places they once lived. Norfolk is also home to red list birds including lapwing and curlew: this means they are the highest conservation priority, needing urgent action.
Some birds previously extinct from the UK have been reintroduced into the Norfolk wetlands, further emphasising why this place matters: the common crane, avocets, spoonbills, marsh harriers, black-tailed godwit and bitterns have all returned. I have been entranced before by the marsh harriers, sweeping over the landscape like ancient prehistoric predators, gliding on their fingered wings.
It is our global responsibility. Norfolk is vital for migration routes. The Wash is one of the most significant estuaries in Europe: millions of migratory birds, including a quarter of all Western Europe's waders, arrive each year to feed and rest as they have for millennia. If you too have seen the magic of flocks of swans like white flares on a winter's dusk, returning to Welney in Norfolk, then you will understand how important these habitats are: Bewick's swans had declined by 95% in 25 years according to the RSPB's State of Birds report. These same swans had flown from the Arctic, squadrons sweeping over the oceans all the way to get here.
Durham University researchers have estimated that coastal wetlands, like the ones in Norfolk, could start to disappear from the year 2040 due to rapid rises in sea levels. Once wetlands are gone, they are gone forever. If we lose them, then there would be less magic in the world as a whole.
I have been mesmerised by watching flocks of knot and plover in Norfolk, like the glittering scales of silver bream, the swirling, flexing cloud fragmenting, condensing and whirling, like liquid mercury glimmering. It undulates and curls, moving in a perfectly synchronised way like iron filings from magnets, curling and spiralling in a wild arc through the air.
We can save disappearing wetlands by having the imagination to create new ones. Starting small, we need to work with farmers and landowners, get political support and funding for wetland creation in Norfolk. An example of starting small was Lakenheath Fen in East Anglia, converted from a carrot farm into a wildlife site that is now home to many threatened species, including the crane. When areas of RSPB Titchwell were lost because of the changing coast, new lagoons were created to compensate for the losses. In Holland, reclaiming land created wetland where birds like spoonbills and sea eagles inhabit. Protected areas should be linked, rather than speckled over Norfolk, because one large habitat is much less likely to be affected by climate change than lots of smaller ones. If wildlife charities can continue to buy wetlands in Norfolk and join their reserves together, then they might save them from disappearing forever. Education in the UK should include wetlands in the curriculum to make more join the fight. Creating new wetlands to compensate for the losses due to climate change will take time, so we need to act now.
On a flat grey winter's day, I stalked a curlew at Titchwell. Its cry was hope's lament in quivering ripples; a sound of the ancient wild, uncopiable, unmakeable, yet I know this once familiar sound is vanishing. One day, maybe in my lifetime, there won't be a curlew for me to hear.
Creating new wetlands is a small step with massive potential impact. If we act now, we can do it. As the WWT states, 'If the rainforests are the lungs of the planet, then the wetlands are the lifeblood.' Don’t let the lifeblood of the planet spill away into nothingness.
Header image: Bewick's swans at Welney Wetlands by Don Cuddon