Rachel is PhD student in clinical biochemistry at University of Cambridge. With input from local experts, her piece discusses the competing interests at play in the management of north Norfolk’s natural spaces before extrapolating out to the political and cultural problems that exacerbate these difficulties.
When people think of UK beaches, the Norfolk coastline is often overlooked in favour of the South Coast. But it is an area of beautiful diverse landscapes, ranging from marshes and wetland to rugged rocky beach and golden sands. There is something magical about driving down winding coastal roads through lush green fields, giddy with excitement at being the first to spot the deep blue expanse of sea as you come over the horizon. Therefore, it’s no surprise that the Norfolk coast is a designated Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) and that there are several hard working groups fighting to maintain the diversity of its ecosystems.
I am grateful to have had a childhood spent exploring the many beaches and nature reserves along the North Norfolk coast. I learnt to swim in the sea, spotted wild birds and enjoyed many evenings watching sunsets on the beach (thanks to this area having the only west-facing coastline in the east of the UK). In my adulthood, however, I have become aware of the delicate relationships between conservationists, local farmers, and seasonal tourism that sustain the beach’s management. I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to discuss climate sustainability with Jake Fiennes, the General Conservation Manager for Holkham village and parish, Norfolk.
In my adulthood, however, I have become aware of the delicate relationships between conservationists, local farmers, and seasonal tourism that sustain the beach’s management.
There is something about a sunny day that gets everyone in a frenzy to go to the seaside. Jake informed me that the coastal towns in Norfolk see around 4.4 million tourists each season and, despite restrictions, the past year was no exception. In fact, the travel restrictions encouraged people to explore local areas, and it soon became apparent that the complex relationship between nature, active farming and tourism was put under strain by the rise in new walking enthusiasts. Flocks of day-trippers, from as far as Coventry (a city inland and three hours drive from Holkham), joined locals to queue down the coastal roads in a bid to get away from home. Unfortunately, the infrastructure of these narrow winding roads was not built for this many visitors: in one instance 98 cars were spotted abandoned on a coastal farm track as visitors desperately attempted to access the beach. Barbecues on beaches, parties in the woods, litter from picnics and dog disturbances all had severe effects on bird nesting sites and important coastal structures. Some wardens even spotted holidaymakers trampling across protected marshland just because that was the fastest way to the sea!
Inland from the coast, the county opens up to wide skies and acres of arable farmland. It may appear boring and flat, but this landscape has its own characteristic charm and is vital for supporting UK food production. Weaving in between the working fields are many miles of public footpaths and byways, which have witnessed the soles of hundreds of walking boots. One of the longest, the Peddars Way, follows an ancient Roman road for 46 miles through farmland, ending at the popular coastal town of Hunstanton. The popularity of Norfolk as a walking destination is a huge asset for tourism and brings many customers to local business and public houses. However in poor weather, these well-trodden footpaths become quagmires, and inexperienced walkers may overspill into nearby farmland, unknowingly destroying vital crops. Additionally, the social distancing measures during the past year haven’t helped matter, with farmers complaining that the increase in ramblers and poor use of public footpaths was causing severe damage to their crop production.
It was disheartening to hear how these important areas were being treated, but Jake assures me that preparations are underway to manage the busy summer season ahead. He sees this change in UK holiday patterns as an opportunity for engagement: “It’s important that visitors are aware the Norfolk coast and farmland are working environments and not just a pleasure beach!”
Norfolk's low lying landscape is perfect for crops such as barley and sugar beet, with some grazing cattle found on coastal grassland. However, centuries of regimental agriculture across the county has unfortunately led to a severe decline in biodiversity and natural habitats. Additionally, the extreme weather conditions caused by climate change are detrimental to the quality and crop yield; for instance, in just the first two months of 2021 North Norfolk saw half its average rainfall for an entire year. With 142 arable farms in the designated AONB alone, it is clear that changes are required to maintain a sustainable crop production, while reversing the species decline of native UK wildlife.
There is hope that the Agriculture Act 2020 will provide an incentive to improve climate impacts, as farmers will be supported based on conservation output (clean air, percentage free habitat etc.). Following a recent review, Parliament has declared that 30% of the UK’s natural land will be protected by 2030 – though the current figure is already at 24%! It is important that regardless of the pressure to expand farming and settlement, the areas of the UK where food cannot grow should be kept for nature. A promising Environment Bill (delayed but due Autumn 2021) pledges to keep enforcing EU laws that currently demand protection of the natural environment.
Jake still believes that, if farming methods are simply made more sustainable, there would be a joint benefit of efficient food production and support for the return of migrating birds to farmland. His ideal 21st century farm would have a mixture of crops and companion plants growing all year round, while maintaining an enhanced natural diversity to increase sustainable food output. A change in mindset is slowly being applied and up to 70% of UK fields are now using mixed farming approaches (National Farmers Union). To restore biodiversity further, nature needs space to expand and regrow alongside crops, not just at the edges of fields.
Another big factor impacting cultural attitudes to farming in the UK is that most people have become disconnected from where their food comes from. “Want it now, buy it now” attitudes mean that most consumers expect to be able to purchase food regardless of the season and growing location. Whilst convenient, this is not sustainable and reconnecting with nature and food sources is vital. Overall we need to adjust our diets and adopt a “think global, eat local” mindset in order to make our food consumption sustainable. According to Jake, his team at Holkham are working hard to bring nature back and support tourists, while maintaining a productive farming area. And the positive impact this has on biodiversity and wildlife is clear: they have already seen increased numbers of breeding lapwing and migrating birds returning to marshland, and pink-footed geese are now a common sight flying overhead.
Overall we need to adjust our diets and adopt a “think global, eat local” mindset in order to make our food consumption sustainable.
The rich biodiversity of species and landscape in Norfolk are held in a delicate balance with agricultural farming and human activity, and it is thanks to the many efforts of conservation groups that this landscape can be enjoyed by all who visit. Many hope that post-pandemic, exploration and interest in local areas will continue. It is, however, important that all visitors follow the Coastal Code, to ensure this beauty can be sustained and enjoyed for years to come. Also, by adjusting their cultivation methods, farmers can increase crop yields while improving the lives of local wildlife, and bringing in more bird watchers who will in turn support the local tourism trade. It is a cyclical, well balanced system and personally, I can’t wait to be back walking along my favourite beach and looking out over plentiful green farmland.