Wildlife drowning under the high seas

East coast nature reserves sinking fast into the sea, threatening birds in wetlands
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Some of Britain's best known nature reserves will be drowned under the sea in the next few decades, conservation organisations warned yesterday.

It was their opening shot in a war to persuade the Government to come up with more money and change its coastal defence planning in order to save, or recreate, precious seaside habitats in East Anglia that are home to rare species such as the bearded tit, bittern and wainscot moth, and which are under mounting threat.

The Government themselves forecast that the sea level around south-east England will rise by nearly two feet over the next half century. This is partly because the entire south-eastern portion of the British Isles is slowly sinking by one or two millimetres a year as the land mass readjusts to the removal of the ice caps at the end of the last Ice Age. The other reason is that the oceans are predicted to expand and rise due to man- made global warming.

The conservation groups, which include the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, The National Trust and English Heritage, say that a wildlife- rich chain of low-lying grazing marshes, reedbeds and lagoons behind the shingle beaches of Suffolk and Norfolk are at risk. Well known for their birds, they are all designated by the Government for nature protection and several are meant to be protected by European Union nature conservation laws.

In February last year a combination of storms and exceptionally high tides flooded the freshwater Cley and Salthouse Marshes in Norfolk with salt water to a depth of six feet along a two mile stretch of coast. The marine flooding lasted for three weeks.

The marshes there are one of the few UK haunts of the bittern, a large heron-like bird which is one of the most critically endangered in Britain. No bitterns bred there in 1996 because the salt stunted the reeds which give them cover and killed the freshwater fish they eat. Fortunately Cley and Salthouse are now recovering, and two bittern nests have been seen this summer.

John Sharpe of the RSPB said: "Some of Europe's finest wildlife sites are being lost. If these sites cannot be protected in the longer term then replacement habitats must be created. There is no clear mechanism or adequate money available to ensure this happens - the Government needs to address this urgently."

Peter Doktor, of the Norfolk Wildlife Trust, said that at Cley and Salthouse Marshes the Government's Environment Agency - responsible for coastal defences - had now decided to build an earthen embankment as an extra line of defence behind the natural shingle bank. This was welcome.

But at the trust's Brancaster Marshes, the agency was promoting "managed retreat" which means not maintaining the coastal defences and letting the sea gradually move inland.

The wildlife campaigners accept that there are places where the best policy may be not to build or maintain expensive coastal defences, but to let the sea have its way. However, they want new wetland habitats to be created to replace those areas which are lost to the waves - and since that will usually involve taking farmland out of production this would not come cheap.