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Holkham National Nature Reserve – Changing Times during the Covid 19 Pandemic

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Holkham National Nature Reserve covers 4100 hectares of the dynamic North Norfolk coast. It has become famous in recent years for frequently winning the ‘best beach’ award. With over seven and a half miles of wide-open sands backed by dune and pinewood it is hardly surprising. Such beauty draws an estimated one million visitors per year, a figure that could well be vastly surpassed as we have multiple access points. The Reserve, however, is much more than the famous beach. It is home to vast winter wader and wildfowl assemblages, breeding Little Terns, Marsh Harrier, Bitterns, Spoonbills, Egrets and 900 hectares of grazing marsh managed for nesting waders and beef cattle. Much of it is still very much a working farmland environment.

Lady Anne's Drive at Holkham on New Year's Day 2020, thousands of visitors passed through (copyright Andrew Bloomfield)
Lady Anne's Drive at Holkham on New Year's Day 2020, thousands of visitors passed through (copyright Andrew Bloomfield)

With North Norfolk’s popularity soaring more and more each year, one of the greatest challenges we face is managing visitors and trying to strike a balance between wide open public access and more tranquil undisturbed spots where wildlife can prosper. Even in the winter months, unless the weather is ghastly, we can expect two car parks full of visitors many with multiple dogs. This has all suddenly come to an abrupt, albeit temporary, end with the advent of the Covid 19 pandemic that currently has the world in its grip. With the country in ‘Lockdown’, the ambience and views along the North Norfolk coast have changed beyond all recognition.

Lady Anne's Drive Easter Monday 2020, brilliant sunshine and no visitors (copyright Andrew Bloomfield)
Lady Anne's Drive Easter Monday 2020, brilliant sunshine and no visitors (copyright Andrew Bloomfield)

The penultimate weekend of March (a glorious period of sunny weather and the week before the start of Lockdown) was one more typical of an August bank holiday - a scenario that seems to be increasingly the norm here. All the car parks were full, with some 288 visitors entering through the main entrance in an hour. The first barbeques and illegal metal detectorists were out. Dogs were running through protected bird areas. Coastguards and the local lifeboat were called out to rescue the occupants of a yacht that ran aground and was smashed to smithereens - leaving rubbish festooned across the beach. All of this had to be dealt with and is fast becoming an ever-increasing day to day duty of our small but valiant team of wardens.

The Ringed Plover is one of the fastest declining birds on the North Norfolk coast due to recreational pressures. It is hoped many will settle down to nest this year (copyright Andrew Bloomfield)
The Ringed Plover is one of the fastest declining birds on the North Norfolk coast due to recreational pressures. It is hoped many will settle down to nest this year (copyright Andrew Bloomfield)

Fast forward two weeks into Lockdown and the contrast could not be starker. Desolate, devoid of people, no noise other than that of birds, the roar of the sea and howl of the wind. Utter tranquillity and nature in the raw. It seems perhaps callous to talk of positives in such testing times, yet the reality is plain to see. In next to no time, the former blurred lines along the edge of public areas and wilderness have started to merge. Lady Anne’s Drive, the reserve’s main entrance point and usually the hub of all activity for all million visitors, is sandwiched between two extensive areas of wet grassland with breeding Lapwings and wintering wildfowl. The margins of the car park are a rough unkempt strip of grass alongside the fence line. Already we have seen up to five pair of Grey Partridge prospecting for nest sites as they frantically call and the males tussle in their struggles to maintain territories. With no dogs and human intrusion, their immediate future looks far rosier. Wood Pigeons have started to nest in an open poplar tree right beside the main foot gate and migrant Ring Ouzels (usually the wariest of the thrush family) have been seen feeding unconcernedly beside the footpath.

Out on the beach, the short-term benefits of having very few people has instantly become apparent. Sanderling and Oystercatchers have been able to feed along the shoreline in peace, free from harassment from the constant presence of unleashed dogs. Shore Larks, rare winter visitors from the Scandinavian highlands have been observed eking out seeds from a tideline of shingle where ordinarily they would gain no solace.

Oystercatchers roosting on the shoreline, strangely a seldom seen sight these days due to constant visitor pressures (copyright Andrew Bloomfield)
Oystercatchers roosting on the shoreline, strangely a seldom seen sight these days due to constant visitor pressures (copyright Andrew Bloomfield)

In the midst of April all thoughts would normally go to protecting the breeding birds of the shoreline. Holkham hosts diminishing numbers of Oystercatchers and Ringed Plovers and two very vulnerable colonies of Little Terns, the second rarest breeding sea birds in the UK. In a partnership with Natural England, Holkham typically cordons off potential breeding area in readiness for nesting. We have continued this initiative and indeed increased our efforts ahead of the ‘gates’ reopening. This is essential as birds such as the Plovers and Oystercatchers have already started to scrape out nests. With hardly any people (and most tellingly no dogs) present, combined with a remarkable spell of warm weather their breeding activities have moved forward slightly in their calendar. Even more interesting is the adoption of sites that due to public presence have been devoid of nesting birds for a great number of years. If ever there was a time for nature to gain lost ground it is now. Depending on how long the current Lockdown lasts it will be real eye opener to see what other changes occur and if indeed it can all still cope when the public are finally allowed back on sites in their masses.

Andy Bloomfield, Senior Warden Holkham NNR.

For more information about Holkham visit www.holkham.co.uk

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