Cley Marshes Nature Reserve, England

Cley Marshes is a 176-hectare (430-acre) nature reserve on the North Sea coast of England just outside the village of Cley next the Sea, Norfolk. A reserve since 1926, it is the oldest of the reserves belonging to the Norfolk Wildlife Trust (NWT), which is itself the oldest county Wildlife Trust in the United Kingdom. Cley Marshes protects an area of reed beds, freshwater marsh, pools and wet meadows and has been designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), Special Area of Conservation (SAC), Special Protection Area (SPA), and Ramsar Site due to the large numbers of birds it attracts.

The reserve is important for some scarce breeding species, such as pied avocets on the islands, and western marsh harriers, Eurasian bitterns and bearded reedlings in the reeds, and is also a major migration stopoff and wintering site. There are also several nationally or locally scarce invertebrates and plants specialized for this coastal habitat. It has five bird hides and an environmentally friendly visitor center and further expansion is planned through the acquisition of neighboring land and improvements to visitor facilities.

The site has a long history of human occupation, from prehistoric farming to its use as a prisoner of war camp in the Second World War. The reserve attracts large numbers of visitors, contributing significantly to the economy of Cley village. Despite centuries of embankment to reclaim land and protect the village, the marshes have been flooded many times, and the southward march of the coastal shingle bank and encroachment by the sea make it inevitable that the reserve will eventually be lost. New wetlands are being created further inland to compensate for the loss of coastal habitats.

Cley Marshes reserve was created in 1926 when Norfolk birdwatcher Dr Sydney Long bought the land which now makes up the reserve for the sum of £5,100, to be held “in perpetuity as a bird breeding sanctuary”. Long then established the Norfolk Wildlife Trust.

The reserve was extended in 1962 through the lease of the adjacent 11-hectare (27-acre) Arnold’s Marsh from the National Trust; this had long been the primary feeding area for waders, but much of the best habitat had been lost to the advancing shingle ridge. New pools and hides were created on the reserve from 1964, and the sale of permits for access to the hides became a useful source of income for the NWT. Further pools and hides were established during the 1970s, and a visitor center was built in 1981 on the site of the current building.

Over the long history of the reserve, it has had only three wardens, all from the same family. Robert Bishop was warden from 1926 to 1937, and was followed by his grandson, Billy, from 1937 to 1978. Billy’s son, Bernard, who was appointed in 1978, is still managing the reserve.

The reserve now covers 176 hectares (430 acres) and is of international importance for its breeding and wintering birds. It was designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) in 1954, and in 1986 it was subsumed into the 7,700-hectare (19,000-acre) North Norfolk Coast SSSI. The larger area is now additionally protected through Natura 2000, Special Protection Area (SPA) and Ramsar listings, and is part of the Norfolk Coast Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB). The reserve has been referred to as “a Mecca for birdwatchers”.

The reserve is to the north of the A149 coast road just east of the village of Cley next the Sea, 6 km (3.7 mi) north of Holt. The visitor center and car park are to the south of the road, opposite the reserve. The reserve can be reached by public transport using the bus service that stops outside the visitor center.

The reserve is viewable from the visitor center, footpaths next to the A149 and down the East Bank, the beach and the road running from the beach back to the main road. It can be accessed by footpaths at three points, each leading to one or more bird hides. Beach Road and the beach itself form part of the Peddars Way long distance footpath.

The present visitor center, which opened in June 2007, is on a small hill overlooking the reserve. It contains a café and shop, and is open daily. The reserve and hides are open at all times, with free access to NWT members, although non-members must buy a permit.

The visitor center is built on environmentally friendly principles. Its roof is covered with living sedum plants, rainwater is collected for re-use, and the building’s energy profile is reduced using solar water heating, wind turbines and geothermal heat pumps. It has won a number of awards including the Emirates Glass LEAF architectural award for the sustainability category. The success of the center has led to plans to develop it further, offering more services and educational facilities and enhancing its profitability for the Trust. The center and four of the five bird hides are accessible to wheelchair users.

In 2012 the NWT launched a public appeal to raise £1 million to purchase 58 hectares (143 acres) of private land immediately to the east of the existing reserve, and adjoining the existing 66 ha (163 acre) Trust reserve at Salthouse Marshes. This purchase would create a unified 8 km (5 mi) stretch of NWT-owned coastal land and expand the Cley reserve by one-third.

A 2005 survey at Cley and five other North Norfolk coastal sites found that 39 per cent of visitors gave birdwatching as the main purpose of their visit. The 7.7 million day visitors and 5.5 million who made overnight stays in the area in 1999 are estimated to have spent £122 million, and created the equivalent of 2,325 full-time jobs. Cley Marshes, like Titchwell Marsh RSPB and Holkham NNR, attracts 100,000 or more visitors annually.

Of the six sites, Cley and Titchwell have the highest proportion of pre-planned visits, and Cley, together with neighbouring Blakeney, had the highest per capita spend per visitor. The equivalent of 52 full-time jobs in the Cley area are estimated to result from the £2.45 million spent by the visiting public.

The large number of tourists can have negative effects; wildlife may be disturbed, particularly species that breed in exposed areas, such as ringed plovers, and plants can be trampled, which is a particular problem in sensitive habitats such as sand dunes and vegetated shingle. Damage can be reduced by measures such as wardening the breeding colonies and using fences, boardwalks and signs to control access. The access paths to the hides, other than the northernmost, are largely boardwalked, and an extensive program of fence replacement and improvements to the control of water levels on the reserve took place in 2010–2011.

Cley Marshes

Cley Marshes

Cley Marshes

Cley Marshes

Cley Marshes

Cley Marshes

Cley Marshes

Cley Marshes

Cley Marshes

Cley Marshes

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