Bugs, Birds and Beasts in the East

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You might be surprised to read that our work is far broader than nature reserves and Big Garden Birdwatch. Read more about what else we do.

Bugs, Birds and Beasts in the East

All of our up to date fun and frolics in the East from office antics to great conservation stories and those magical connections with nature.
  • Show the Love for Halvergate Marshes

    Show the Love for Halvergate Marshes

    Mark Smart - Senior Site Manager of Berney Marshes and Breydon Water


    The impact of climate change

    Whether you’re a climate change sceptic or completely accept it, we must all appreciate that our weather systems are changing and becoming increasingly unpredictable.

    Gone are the balmy summer days I remember as a child and teenager in the 80s, and gone are the predictable, traditional English seasons and their associated rain fall patterns that controlled my working life on farms throughout the early 90s and in more recent times for the RSPB as Site Manager of Berney Marshes.

    If we want to maintain our reserves to provide high quality habitats for our existing wetland species, and create new habitat for the species that we are expecting to gain in the future, then we have to make changes. We also have to change our approach to water management.

    Drone image of Halvergate Marshes works - Jeff Kew (RSPB)

    At RSPB reserve Berney Marshes, in the heart of the Norfolk Broads, we have been trying to think outside the box, developing water management systems that will not only protect the reserve from times of drought, but also ensure the provision of water to one of the UK’s largest areas of wet grassland, Halvergate Marshes.

    Berney marshes is a 700ha grassland site that sits within the 3500ha of Halvergate marshes. The ability to hold and manage water is one of the biggest challenges we face in the management of this amazing landscape.

    Water is the life blood, the very elixir that draws in wildlife through the spring and winter months, but it is becoming difficult to achieve the levels that are needed in terms of quality, quantity and at the right time of year.

    Without water, the area would not be able to support approximately 300 pairs of breeding waders or the 100,000 wintering waterfowl, or provide local farmers with safe grazing for their cattle and enable them to deliver their High Level Stewardship commitments.

    Over the past 2 years, we have been working closely with the Water Management Alliance (on behalf of the Broads Internal Drainage Board) and the Environment Agency to design and build a water storage system that will overcome some of these problems as well as create new habitat for our expected new colonists.

    Drone image of Halvergate Marshes - Jeff Kew (RSPB)

    The current situation

    Two sides of the area are surrounded by tidal rivers. More and more salt water is being pushed up these river systems from Great Yarmouth, meaning it is increasingly difficult to find points in the tide when fresh water can be drawn in through the main sluice onto the marshes.

    When the sluice was first located on the River Bure in pre-Victorian times, it was never anticipated that salt water would start being pushed further and further up the system, reducing the time that fresh water was available.

    But this is what we are seeing today. The time window available to let water onto the site has dramatically reduced, particularly in the summer when river flows are at their lowest, allowing the salt water to be pushed up the river systems.


    Map showing the new fleet scheme. The blue line and red route (which depicts the new fleet route) show the existing main water supply. The green line shows the lower level drain. Blue hatch demonstrates new semi-natural washland, and the buff areas are existing RSPB managed land. 

    Cue the innovative new design

    Thanks to the construction of our innovative new design, more water can be stored in a purpose-built washland right in the heart of Halvergate Marshes, all on RSPB land. This area, approximately 80ha, (equivalent to 80 football pitches) will be filled up when water quality is suitable through the winter and spring months, then gradually fed across Halvergate Marshes when required. With time, this semi natural washland will develop to support a rich habitat of wetland species which might include include long-legged colonists such as crakes, herons, spoonbills, black-winged stilts and ibises.

    New channel being excavated

    The beauty of this design is that we are using the natural contours of the ground to create a network of ‘islands’ surrounded by shallow water. The water will come and go as water is let on and off the washland into the surrounding grassland. This will ensure that ditch communities full of important aquatic plant, invertebrates and mammals are supported on the reserve and across the rest of the marshes and ensure local farmers can continue to safely graze the marshes with livestock as they have done for centuries, without the risk of the animals becoming poisoned by salt water.

    When fresh water is available at the sluice it will be let in to refill the area, thus creating an ever-changing dynamic system. The partnership of the WMA engineering expertise coupled with the RSPB wetland management and creation expertise has ensured a design that will work for everyone. It won’t be the standard reservoir type design with high bank holding back large volumes of water back. It will take us back to what the area might have looked like pre-1400 before the Dutch drained the marshes to convert them to grazing marshes.

    One of 6 aqueducts that have been installed

    12,000 cubic meters of clay have been excavated to enable the construction of 6 aqueducts, creating 8km of new bank, and 4km of new channel ranging from 7-15m wide, allowing us to hold an additional 60,000 cubic meters of water! By the time the work is completed 6 new scrapes will have been dug to provide material for the new banks and 12 new water control structures will have been installed.

    All of this will have been carried out with little to no impact on the native wildlife, as demonstrated by the breeding waders who had their best year in 2017, but to reduce the impact on some of the specialist ditch species such as water voles, large scale mitigation works were and continue to be carried out before the main engineering works begun.

    Water vole mitigation prior to the main work starting

    All in all this has been a huge project, but one that I am proud to say will ensure a good water supply for years to come.

  • Why we need to show the love for people, places and species

    James Robinson, Regional Director Eastern England

    This piece first appeared in the Eastern Daily Press on 31st January 2018.


    What will you be doing this Valentine’s Day? Romantic dinner? Trip to Paris? Buying a last-minute gift? Indulging in a takeaway with friends?

    Chances are, you’re not going to be dwelling on the state of the planet. It’s not a topic that generally comes up on the most romantic day of the year. More likely you’ll be thinking about your loved ones: the time spent together, the most meaningful ways to show your appreciation for each other.

    We know how to show our love for our nearest and dearest, but how do we show our love for places that shape us? For that nature that we are part of? For the water, air and soil that give us life? For the landscapes that define us?

    Recently I visited one of the most important landscapes here in the east, a landscape I feel very passionate about. Halvergate marshes lies in the heart of the Norfolk Broads, hugging the Acle Straight from both sides for miles. It’s an engineered landscape which now holds the title of region’s largest grazing marsh; a source of freshwater, livelihood, and a wealth of wildlife.

    All of which is threatened by the impacts of climate change. Sea levels are rising and the regularity of tidal surges is predicted to increase, having major consequences on inland landscapes, like Halvergate.

    The River Bure is a source of freshwater for Halvergate marshes. However, rising sea levels and rising high tides are pushing more and more saltwater down the River Bure, a problem exacerbated by reduced rainfall, another predicted consequence of a changing climate in the east. Less rainfall means less water to hold back the salt, resulting in fewer opportunities to move freshwater from the river onto the marshes during spring and summer.

    A supply of freshwater is needed throughout the summer at Halvergate to provide a home for rare and important freshwater plants and invertebrates, as well as the essential ditch systems which act as ‘wet fencing’ and allow traditional grazing – a practice enshrined in the culture of the Broads - to continue.

    It goes without saying that overcoming climate-induced threats is a challenge, but it’s not impossible. It starts with dedication, passion, commitment, and imagination – all the ingredients for love, which create a solution.

    Working with the Water Management Alliance on behalf of the Broads Internal Drainage Board, local landowners, and with funding from the Environment Agency, together we have created a scheme that will ensure freshwater is always available in this important landscape. A new four-kilometre watercourse – known as a ‘Higher Level Carrier’ - leading from the River Bure will allow freshwater to be stored and used for farming and wildlife.

    It will be made from clay and enable about 60,000 cubic metres of freshwater to be stored at any time. When freshwater is available (when there is no salt adjacent to the inlet sluice on the River Bure) it allows a lot more water to be let in and stored ready for times when we can’t let more water in because it’s too salty. This will offer a reliable supply of freshwater, especially in times of drought or flood, supporting and protecting freshwater species and wet grazing practices and ultimately allowing the marshes to adapt to climate change in the future. As if the project couldn’t be any more innovative, the clay used to form the carrier has been sourced from RSPB-managed fields to create shallow lagoons for nesting waders. A combination of this shallow-flooded wetland and a series of natural islands is perfect for long-legged birds like crakes, herons, spoonbills and wading species such as black-winged stilts, which are expected to move to the UK as climate change makes their current habitat unsuitable.

    If we are to keep special places like Halvergate marshes safe and sound, we need to act now, so that habitats have time to develop and become suitable. This will require more innovative work from us, other conservation organisations and governments. However, it also begins with us.

    To influence governments, businesses and organisations we need to start the conversation. We need to show our dedication, passion, commitment and imagination in saving places, people and species from climate change that are important to us. We need to show the love.

    So this Valentine’s Day, take some time to think about the people and places that are dear to you. Join in with the Climate Coalition’s ‘Show the Love’ campaign. Make a green heart. Wear it with pride. Start a conversation. Show the world that you care.

  • Big Garden Birdwatch: Which birds took the top 5 spots last year?

    Can you believe that #BigGardenBirdwatch is only 4 days away! Following on from last week's countdown, we're now taking a look at some familiar faces that made the top 5 in the Big Garden Birdwatch charts here in the east last year. If you haven't downloaded your free Big Garden Birdwatch pack yet, there's still plenty of time, just visit rspb.org.uk/birdwatch

    5. Down two places, it's the blue tit - a colourful mix of blue, yellow, white and green makes the blue tit one of our most attractive and most recognisable garden visitors. In winter, family flocks join up with other tits as they search for food. A garden with four or five blue tits at a feeder at any one time may be feeding 20 or more. 

    Blue tits dropped two places in the 2017 Big Garden Birdwatch charts after a 16% downturn in sightings. Changes in weather during breeding seasons can have a big impact on these small birds.

    2016’s prolonged wet spell meant there were fewer caterpillars about for feeding their young. It’s likely that this led to fewer younger birds surviving than usual, meaning there were fewer seen in gardens.

    However, long-term trends are slightly less worrying, with a small 2% decrease in the region since 2007.


    4. Up one place at number four is the woodpigeon - the UK's largest and commonest pigeon. It is largely grey with a white neck patch and white wing patches, clearly visible in flight. Although shy in the countryside it can be tame and approachable in towns and cities. Its cooing call is a familiar sound in woodlands as is the loud clatter of its wings when it flies away. 

    Woodpigeons have successfully made the most of our feeders and tables over the last ten years, increasing by an impressive 56% across the east, and a whopping 1060% across the UK over thirty years! When times are tough in the wider countryside, woodpigeons will happily munch on whatever seeds are going in our gardens.

    3. Another climber, taking the number three spot is the blackbird - males live up to their name but, confusingly, females are brown often with spots and streaks on their breasts. The bright orange-yellow beak and eye-ring make adult male blackbirds striking. 

    These familiar garden visitors have soared by 38% in the region since 2007, and are now the region’s (and the UK’s) most widespread bird, having been seen in 96% of our gardens. Gardeners can help this success to continue by avoiding the use of garden chemicals, and by planting shrubs that provide blackbirds with caterpillars, berries, or both.

    2. Holding on to second place is the starling - at a distance starlings look black, but when you see them closer they are very glossy with a sheen of purples and greens. Their flight is fast and direct and they walk and run confidently on the ground. 

    However, despite being the second most seen bird in our gardens, the drop in starlings over the last 30 years is somewhat more depressing.

    A 79% reduction in numbers nationally since 1979, and a 22% decline in the region since 2007, are largely undetermined. It is known though, that starlings are heavily dependent on soil invertebrates like earthworms and leatherjackets, and it is possible this food supply has either declined or perhaps become less available during dry summers.

    1. Another non-mover in at number 1, it's the house sparrow - noisy and gregarious little birds, house sparrows are cheerful exploiters of man’s rubbish and wastefulness, having managed to colonise most of the wild: the ultimate avian opportunist perhaps. 

    However, since 1979, the house sparrow population has decreased by 57% since 1979. Here in the east, the decline has not been so severe with a decrease of 7% since 2007.

    Possible reasons for this decline include a reduction in the availability of their preferred foods, increased levels of pollution, loss of suitable nesting sites, increased prevalence of disease, and increased levels of predation. However, the exact causes of these rapid declines remain unclear.

    How will these birds fare this year? Sign up for Big Garden Birdwatch to let us know.