Collaboration is key in turning research into recovery

Iconic Norfolk coastal habitats among most important in UK for biodiversity

Collaboration between academics, land managers/farmers and conservation groups leads to evidence-based framework for conservation

Research provides basis for local nature recovery and landscape recovery schemes

Innovative and challenging ideas for creating or extending natural habitats

The iconic Norfolk coast covered by this Biodiversity Audit stretches for 105 kilometres from the Wash in West Norfolk to the cliffs of East Norfolk. Among the variety of habitats within this landscape are some of the largest areas of salt marsh in the country, sand dunes, freshwater grazing marshes and wetlands. 

The area is home to a large number of priority species – birds, mammals, insects and plants – in many cases, more than most other comparable habitats across England and Wales.

While most of the habitats within this area are protected for their national and internationally recognised biodiversity, there is a lack of knowledge among land managers when it comes to the form this protection should take. The willingness to protect, enhance and support the habitats and the multitude of species in the habitats is strong, but land mangers need to be far better informed.

The habitat requirements of some species to survive and thrive are well known – particularly types of birds – but there is a lack of full awareness regarding wider nature recovery. This includes species, largely plants and invertebrate, that are off-radar but are nonetheless crucial to the biodiversity of the landscape.

And of course, this is all set within the wider, global context where the planet as a whole faces serious challenges in terms of sea level rises, climate change and the need for innovative solutions and managed realignment.

A fact that often goes unnoticed among the wider population is that the diverse habitats found along the Norfolk Coast are a result of two forces: nature and land managers – chiefly farmers, conservation groups and government agencies. It is the work of these entities that has made the Norfolk Coastline what it is, but the question is now: How can this vitally important landscape be managed to bring greater environmental, cultural and economic benefit?

Finding the answer to that question has brought together an unlikely set of bedfellows. Academics, researchers, conservationists, environmentalists, government agencies, local authorities and farmers/landowners have come together under the umbrella name of the North Norfolk Coastal Group (NNCG).

The long-term aim of the group is to help the people managing the land along the coast to maintain and enhance the habitats as biodiverse and productive landscapes. To do that however, the land managers need more information and evidence of success that will help with decision-making in the future.

All of which brings us to the release of the Biodiversity Audit, a body of work undertaken by the research team at the University of East Anglia. It is a complex, powerful and challenging body of work that will greatly enhance understanding of how land management and nature can work together, while also raising uncomfortable issues that serve to highlight the complexity of our relationship and place within the natural environment.

Working with the landowners and farmers, as well as groups such as Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB), Norfolk Wildlife Trust, National Trust, Natural England, Norfolk Rivers Trust, Norfolk Ornithological Association (NOA) and the RSPB, the UEA Research team has delivered a biodiversity audit, which aims to drive forwards a process of evidence-based conservation.

The UEA Biodiversity Audit provides a framework for conservation management based on a comprehensive analysis of the full spectrum of species inhabiting a region. More than one million biological records, combined with a wealth of knowledge gleaned from regional species experts and managers has created an information base that will prove invaluable to land managers as they seek to enhance the biodiversity of their landscape.

The result of this huge data collection project is a wealth of information on the ecological, habitat and management needs of hundreds of priority species, meaning clear, informed decision can be made in order to secure biodiversity and natural heritage for the future.

While the task ahead may seem huge, it is by taking this collaborative approach that the contributors to the Biodiversity Audit – be they academics, farmers or conservationists – can work together to implement landscape scale actions for nature recovery. Relatively small changes to landscape management – transforming existing grazing marsh that is at risk of flooding into a new salt marsh, as one example – can provide more space for many species, even as coastal erosion is shrinking some habitats.

While nature recovery is at the heart of the action, there is also the ability of these habitats to sequester carbon, provide a buffer for water quality and, with an acknowledgement to the importance of tourism for this area, provide a visual landscape that will delight visitors to the area.

While the long-term aim is one of habitat support, renewal and creation, for farmers and landowners seeking to adhere to the government’s drive towards environmentally-friendly farming via the proposed Environmental Land Management Schemes (ELMS), this is a way of working towards the development and implementation of nature friendly agri-environment practices.

Some examples of the range and scale of land management issues to which this Biodiversity Audit could provide evidence include:

Whether to provide flood defence to protect settlements; practice managed realignment (deliberate breaches of the defences to relieve pressure); or to increase natural processes (removing excess vegetation so sand dunes can move naturally).

Whether to convert food-producing arable fields adjacent to the coastal floodplain to semi-natural chalk grassland, acidic grass-heath or wood pasture. This would improve connectivity between inland habitats and coastal dunes, buffer the water quality and enhance the visual landscape.

The benefits to diversity of moving away from short sward to varied sward heights in wet grassland areas to support a wider biodiversity?

How should wetland management be prioritised to enhance water quality?

While the landscape may be complex, what the Biodiversity Audit proves beyond doubt is the importance of the Norfolk coastline’s multiple habitats for supporting large numbers of priority species.

The salt marsh and brackish habitats support more priority species than most other major salt marsh complexes in England, while the sand dunes, heath and grassland hold more invertebrate species than most dune systems in the rest of the country.

Evidence-based conservation, such as this Biodiversity Audit advocates calls for complex answers to complex questions. In arriving at its conclusion, the Biodiversity Audit challenged many perceived conservation wisdoms, including regional priorities. One example of how the Audit is challenging perceived thinking is the question of sward length in wet grasslands. To attract lapwing – a priority species – the practice has been to uniformly cut sward very short. The Audit suggests varied sward length across an area will provide a habitat for lap wing but, in creating a mosaic of habitats by allowing some sward, some scrub, some bare soil, so a greater number of species will be catered for. 

The research team acknowledge that some suggestions for creating a more diverse landscape that have arisen from the Audit will be controversial. One example is the iconic pinewood that stretches from Wells to Holkham. It is part of a beachscape that draws tourists from across the world. A more diverse habitat would be created if these woods were opened up – mobilising the sand dune systems to support many more priority species. The mobilised sand dunes would also look landward movement which would sustain the flood defence function. It is for difficult decisions and discussions such as this that the Audit will provide vital evidence and information.

In the process of developing the Audit, researchers collated already-available species records which it then cross-referenced with the species conservation status to assess the regional and national significance of each species and thus whether it should be considered a priority for conservation.

They then tapped into the guidance and knowledge provided by species experts to identify the ecological, habitat and management needs of the priority species.

The Biodiversity Audit is the starting point for a collaboration that will place academic and robustly produced evidence in front of land managers and conservations working at ground level. It identifies important and yet often simple actions that can be taken to protect, sustain and recover biodiversity across one of the UK’s most iconic and important landscapes.

Quotes from Paul Dolman, Liam Crowther and David Lyles.