Blog by Aran Burton, RSPB Communications Officer
While we come to terms with the effects of climate change on our way of life, coastal birds will also have to adapt, but they’re likely to struggle without intervention from us.
It’s vital we mitigate the effects of climate change, such as the potentially catastrophic sea level rises that are predicted to severely affect the UK in the coming years. At RSPB Titchwell, we’re working to protect, and in some cases restore, the land being lost to coastal erosion and the damaging impact this is already having on wildlife.
This is the aim of Life on the Edge, an EU-funded LIFE project, allowing us to provide new habitats, and protect existing ones, at seven nature reserves in England. It’s our duty to provide a future for coastal birds and their habitats, because human activity is the driving force behind climate change.
The land at RSPB Titchwell Marsh nature reserve has been managed since the 1970s, but by 2009 flooding and coastal erosion began to bite. Efforts to protect and strengthen flood defence banks have been going on since 2011 and Life on the Edge, will help build on this.
Titchwell Marsh attracts more than 80,000 visitors a year, who come to enjoy the birds nesting on the reserve, including bittern, avocet, bearded tit and marsh harrier. If these habitats are lost to coastal erosion, these populations of coastal birds will be lost as well – possibly forever. As the water levels in the reed bed change, this important habitat is becoming harder to manage. If the reed bed deteriorates, there are concerns it would eventually dry out and revert to willow scrub, which cannot support nesting bittern, bearded tit or marsh harrier. Freshwater marsh is also at risk from rising water levels, which could displace the avocets that nest here.
Without intervention, climate change would fundamentally alter the landscape at Titchwell Marsh, and displace the hundreds of birds that nest in these special habitats. Thanks to Life on the Edge project work, this bleak future can be prevented.
Work is already underway to reverse this decline and attract new species to the nature reserve, including the creation of 11 new islands in the marsh where birds can nest and roost. Flood defence banks have been raised and extended, and more than a kilometre of fencing to keep out predators has been installed. These improvements are essential for protecting ground nesting birds.
In 2021 there have been 20 pairs of avocet and seven pairs of ringed plover, nine pairs of bearded tit and one booming bittern. This is positive, but we’d like to see more species flourishing in the marsh.
While protecting breeding species is important, it’s also essential the needs of birds are met all year round. Titchwell provides vitally important habitats for wintering birds, including species that nest nearby in other parts of the Norfolk coast, such as redshank and oystercatcher. Titchwell also provides a winter home for species that nest in the Arctic, such as grey plover and knot.
We don’t know what the future holds, both for us and our coastal birds, but by taking action now, we can ensure there is a future to be had.
Blog by Lizzie Bruce, NW Norfolk Reserves Warden
Ten years ago, the Titchwell Marsh Coastal Change project was completed to protect the freshwater habitats from coastal erosion and rising sea levels. The project realigned and strengthened the sea defences that surround the freshwater marsh and reedbed and a new area of tidal saltmarsh, a natural sea defence, was created on the northern side of the Parrinder Bank. The completion of the Coastal Change project has safeguarded the freshwater habitats from saltwater incursion for generations to come.
The time is now right to restore and enhance the freshwater habitats within for the wetland species that are dependant upon this habitat.
The freshwater marsh is home to the iconic avocet and acts as an important service station for migrating waders. In August, using two amphibious excavators, the single freshwater marsh compartment was split into three with new water control structures installed. This will allow the freshwater marsh to be managed on a constant rotational basis ensuring a plentiful supply of food for breeding avocets, migrating waders and wintering wildfowl. In addition, a series of new nesting islands has been created and a new predator fence installed to improve the breeding success of avocets and common terns but could also attract new breeding birds for the reserve, such as sandwich terns.
The second part of the project aims at restoring the freshwater reedbed. The reedbed at RSPB Titchwell Marsh was integral in ensuring the bittern didn’t become extinct in the UK when their population dropped to just 11 booming males in the 1990’s. However, despite the overall conservation success of this species in the UK with more than 200 booming males today, RSPB Titchwell Marsh has not recorded a breeding pair for 10 years.
This project will restore the freshwater reedbed by repairing eroded banks, recreating a network of ditches and ponds, and installing new water control structures. The restoration work will improve the habitat to not just benefit bitterns but enhance the wetland for other species such as bearded tits, water voles, eels and a variety of invertebrates.
An exciting element of the reedbed restoration will be one of the first of its kind in the UK; to create ‘Spoonbill Islands’ for the small but growing breeding population of spoonbills in the UK, and on the Norfolk coast. A series of islands surrounded by a moat have been created which will then be planted with a mixture of trees to create scrubby islands for spoonbills to nest in.
Spoonbills were once a common sight in East Anglia featuring in medieval banquets. But as the Fenlands were drained, these distinctive birds lost their home and became a desirable species for egg collectors and hunters, resulting in them becoming extinct in 1668. As the Dutch population rapidly grew, in 1999 the first pair for 300 years bred in the UK, but it took a further 11 years for a colony to form at Holkham National Nature Reserve in Norfolk. They have since become a regular site on the Norfolk coast including at Titchwell Marsh.
The project commenced in August 2021 and will be completed by the end of October, in readiness for the arrival of the wintering wildfowl.
Photo credits: Oystercatcher by Katie Nethercoat (rspb-images.com)