Norfolk seal habitat granted further protection: An important conservation site for wildlife and seashore plants has become a National Nature Reserve. Oliver Gillie reports

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The Independent Online
THREE PAIRS of grey seals rolled together on the beach at Blakeney Point. The waves broke over them as they caressed each other with their flippers.

Joe Reed, warden of the Norfolk nature reserve, said: 'They are just play-acting. This is the time when the pups are born. The adults mate again soon afterwards. But those are young ones, just learning.'

Each year some 50,000 people come out on boat trips to see the seal colony at Blakeney. Today, Blakeney and the adjoining saltmarshes at Morston and Stiffkey, which are owned by the National Trust, become a National Nature Reserve. Some 200 seals, both common and grey, bask on the sandbanks at Blakeney Point and as the tide goes out they move with it, always keeping an open route to the sea.

Blakeney Point is an immense sandbank which is constantly moving. Each year a new bank of shingle appears at the end of the point and the old shingle banks are eaten away. This makes it a perfect place to study the cycle of destruction and renewal which occurs along the coast but is seldom so clear as it is at Blakeney.

At one end, the new banks of shingle and mud are being stabilised by algal colonies while at the other saltmarsh is consolidating with the growth of seashore plants such as yellow horned poppy, sea lavender, thrift, sea campion and and sea aster. The area is also important for nesting and migrating birds. Little terns ride the wind and dive with an astounding elegance.

This year has been an exceptional one for terns, although most have already left for their winter feeding grounds. Some 200 little terns nested at Blakeney, making it the second largest colony of the bird in England.

'They bred very successfully producing an average of over one chick per pair when they only need an average 0.6 of a chick per pair to maintain their numbers,' Mr Reed said.

'The weather was good so they did not have any difficulty finding food. If there is an algal bloom they cannot see the fish. This year the bloom cleared early and made it easy for them.'

All the five species of terns could be seen this year at Blakeney including the relatively rare roseate terns which paired up although they did not actually breed.

Soon, wintering wildfowl such as Brent geese, wigeon, pintail and teal will descend on the saltmarshes. They will find plenty of food on the extensive area of mud and sand exposed when the tide goes out and a safe place to roost on the sandbanks.

Already Blakeney is a Site of Special Scientific Interest, an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, and part of the Norfolk Heritage Coast. Blakeney and the adjoining saltmarshes are also a Ramsar site, a Special Protection Area and a Biosphere Reserve.

Now that Blakeney has been declared a National Nature Reserve, these birds, plants and other wildlife will be specially protected extending the reserve that already exists close by at Holkham. The declaration, made by English Nature, is a recognition that the land is of international importance for conservation and that the National Trust has the managerial skill to maintain it. The new status will give it special protection under planning law and enable it to attract special funds to assist with the cost of conservation.

(Photograph and map omitted)