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Birdwatchers twitchy over marsh battle

Conflict between leisure and conservation threatens to disturb the natural order on the Norfolk coast. James Cusick reports
"Is it? Is it really a collared pratincole?" Mike, peering through his green, camouflaged telescope at the birds landing on the Cley marshes in Norfolk, assured Anne and John that it was. Everyone's day was made.

This is only one snapshot of the daily dramas seen through the lenses of birdwatchers who congregate along the north Norfolk coastal marshes. However, behind the hides, the Norfolk Wildlife Trust, which runs the marshes, has been caught up in an often-heated environmental debate.

International fame has brought visitors to Cley next the Sea, and they want car parks and lavatories. The visitor centre is small, with a small car park and no lavatories. But better facilities may bring more people and planning permission to enlarge the centre has been refused.

This clash is a microcosm of the debate on the effect that increased leisure is having on natural resources which has recently been the focus of a Commons select committee report and has been worrying environmental groups.

Neil Sinden, assistant secretary for planning and heritage at the Campaign for the Protection of Rural England, said Cley was "a perfect illustration of the conflict between conservation and development as leisure activities increase pressures on the countryside". More visitors to Cley, he said, "would add pressure on the marshes to the detrimental impact of both the wildlife and their habitat and eventually to the quality of the recreational activity itself."

Brendan Joyce, director the Norfolk Wildlife Trust, says the CPRE has not done its homework properly. "We have been given permission to replace dilapidated, worn-out boardwalks to the hides in the marshes. Replacing old leaking and muddy hides is also going ahead. We will also for the first time have hides accessible for wheelchairs. But the number of hides will not go up. And if we improved the centre we could close down the other cafe we run near the beach. Toilets are not a luxury, they are a basic necessity".

The reclaimed marshes are a paradise for bird watchers who come from all over the world. The bird "blackboard", hung outside the centre's main door, lists international flying stars including bitterns, common sandpipers, spotted redshank, ruffs, Mediterranean gulls, sandwich terns, whimbrels, green and wood sandpipers and dunlins. The marshes are also packed with the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds' own symbol, the avocet.

A chalky scribble notes that there was a "hobby at 6.10pm" - birdwatchers are nothing if not precise. The summer is good, with the busy tick of pens on notebooks as the "twitchers" log yet another rare trophy, but the spring and summer are even better as waders stop off on their migration routes to the Arctic breeding grounds.

Bernard Bishop is the sanctuary's warden, and of the third generation of Bishops to hold the post. From Watcher's Cottage, which comes with the job, he can look out over a world of waving reeds, cattle-grazed fields and shallow lagoons. The background noise is the sound of shingle beaches and breaking waves.

Mr Bishop supports the development of the visitor centre and extending the car park that overflows at weekends. He tells anyone who asks: "Generations of Bishops have managed this site. I would never let anything happen to this place."

Most enthusiastic locals seemed unworried by a bigger car park or a bigger centre. Nick, admiring the flying performance of a marsh harrier above the shingle bank proclaimed: "Birders don't come here for the facilities, they come here for the birds."