On Thursday 5th December, many areas of Britain and Ireland — particularly those further north — were affected by an intense winter storm that swept south-eastwards across the country throughout the day. Winds gusting up to 142mph were recorded on the Scottish hills and, although slightly reduced in strength at lower altitude, they caused widespread damage throughout the entire northern half of the UK, leaving many without power and killing two people. The storm later moved eastwards into the North Sea and towards continental Europe, causing similar power outages, disruption and damage in all countries with North Sea coasts, from the Netherlands to Norway.
Though there was no denying the remarkable ferocity of the weather system, it was actually the associated storm surge that caused the greatest problems as vast areas of coastal land suffered extensive flooding as well as structural and landscape damage. A combination of unusually low pressure, strong onshore winds and high 'spring' tides created the perfect conditions for the worst storm surge witnessed in the North Sea since the infamous events of late January 1953. Fortunately, with vastly improved infrastructure, forecasting and response, the loss of life was nothing like that experienced 60 years ago, but the damage was nevertheless extensive and quite unlike what many have seen before in their lifetimes.
For nature lovers, news that many of our most famous coastal reserves have taken a severe battering from the exceptional meteorological events of 5th–6th December was difficult to take. Some areas fared particularly badly, while others managed to escape the worst of the weather and floods. Much has been written and reported on the storm on leading news websites such as BBC. There has also been plenty of reportage from locals on social media outlets such as Twitter and Facebook. Here we amalgamate the information and experiences shared by many of those living or working close to a number of the North Sea coast reserves affected by last week's weather in an attempt to convey the extent of damage caused, as well as providing updates on access and what the future may hold for the fragile ecosystems affected — as well as the wildlife that they support.
One of the first places to be affected was north Northumberland, where the wardens on the Farne Islands awoke on 5th to gales exceeding 60mph. Fortunately, the team remained safe, as did the majority of the islands. Unfortunately, however, the situation was not so bright for the islands' Grey Seal population that were occupying some of the lower-lying areas such as Knoxes Reef and The Wamses — warden David Steel estimates that around 200 individuals may have been lost, but "it could have been a lot worse — the pupping season is almost over and if this had happened just four weeks earlier, we would have had a real nightmare on our hands."
The Inner Farne jetty — many will recognise this as the spot they stood watching the Bridled Tern back in July (Photo: David Steel)
Knoxes Reef — and its breeding Grey Seals — are engulfed by the tide (Photo: Will Scott)
More photos from the Farne Islands can be viewed on the Farnes Blog.
Greatham Creek suffered a major breach, causing flooding of the adjacent Cowpen Marsh. A helicopter was used to fly in material to block the hole created.
Above: the breach in Greatham Creek, and the resultant flooding of adjacent marshland (Photos: Keith Ryan)
As one might expect, the Spurn peninsula was hit particularly badly, with the Point itself actually cut off from the mainland for several hours over high tide.
Above: floodwater engulfs the road at Kilnsea Wetlands; Spurn 'the morning after'; water flowing off Clubley's Field; debris on the road in Kilnsea; the caravan park at Kilnsea (Photos: Tim Jones)
Many more photos of the floods and details of their aftermath at Spurn are available in an illustrated post on Tim Jones' blog.
RSPB's Blacktoft Sands reserve also suffered severe flooding. Mike Andrews offered the following statement:
"We were affected at Blacktoft Sands. On Thursday evening, the entire reserve went under water, including up to the windows in the hides. After a few days, the water levels have dropped to leave a layer of mud over the paths and in the hides. The team is currently working to try to open part of the site for visitors. All hides are intact. We will have to see what impact it will have upon the birds."
An update later came from from Mike early afternoon on 11th: "Cleaning the mud from the reserve paths and hides is taking longer than anticipated, so we are likely not to re-open until after Christmas."
The Lincolnshire side of the Humber estuary also suffered severe flooding, with a number of the county's most productive nature reserves faring badly. The situation was particularly bad at Far Ings Nature Reserve, and North Lincs regional warden Lionel Grooby, of the Lincolnshire Wildlife Trust, commented:
"Our reedbeds and claypits are of national importance but have now been inundated with brackish water which has risen the water level of the pits of between 2 and 5 feet. This together with the amount of silt will chemically change the quality of the freshwater, which is a threat to fish and invertebrates. This will now doubt have a knock-on effect on our birdlife. The water is already being monitored and will continue to be so and it remains to be seen what the long-term effect will be. It could take up to 2 years for the freshwater areas to desalinate. On a positive note, the reedbeds/pits have been flushed out by the surge and a lot of litter/debris has been washed away, plus a number of nutrients will have entered the equation. The water areas to the west of the reserve were extremely low before the surge hence no flooding in that area and...they will remain full so by next spring they will be off to a good start. We must also remember to keep the faith that Nature will fight back and the balance will be redressed over time."
Damaged footpath at Far Ings (Photo: Graham Catley)
Andy Sharp, Volunteer Reserve manager at Far Ings, added:
"The Visitor Centre and surrounding footpaths/foreshore have been severely compromised and the volunteers and members of the Far Ings Bird Study Group have been invaluable in the initial clean-up and know they will continue to help whenever possible and we are grateful that so many people care about this wonderful reserve."
Flood damage at Far Ings (Photos: Graham Catley)
Nearby Alkborough Flats, designed as a managed realignment site, also suffered drastic changes. Graham Catley has spent quite a bit of time at the reserve in the past week and sent in the report below after just getting in from "sweeping two inches of silt from one of the hides":
"The tidal surge that hit eastern Britain on the night of December 5th had a dramatic effect at Alkborough Flats; designed as a managed realignment site, the Flats should take excess water from the Humber during exceptional events but the tide was an estimated 1.6m above the expected spring high and this led to the water topping not only the Humber embankment — where it was intended — but also the bank of the Trent; the whole site was flooded to depths of up to 4m, but the force of the insurging water has caused a huge amount of damage with a large percentage of fences being uprooted, smashed and deposited up to 1km from their source. The main lower hides were flooded to a depth of 2m and the whole site now has a thick coating of slippery silt overlaying all the footpaths and the inside of the hides which are being cleaned. The water has now started to recede with levels falling by up to 2m in five days but, during the surge, it topped the inner embankment and flooded the area of the lower car park and the sewage works to a depth of 2.5m. This water cannot drain away, so will have to be pumped as and when that is possible. The footpaths are covered in huge amounts of debris as well as the mud, and this will take some time to clear. For the time being the site remains closed but work is being undertaken to try and clear some areas and the whole area is visible from Julian's Bower, near the Alkborough church. Large numbers of birds have arrived to exploit the good feeding with Wigeon, Teal, Golden Plovers, Lapwings and Dunlin all in high numbers."
Above: Panorama of flooding at Alkborough Flats; another view of the extent of the flooding; a gate betrays the depth of the flood water; debris strewn along the banks (Photos: Graham Catley)
One of Lincolnshire's flagship reserves — Gibraltar Point NNR, south of Skegness — suffered most dramatically. Here, warden Kev Wilson summarizes the events of the past week on the reserve:
"After storm-force westerlies brought down a number of old trees during Thursday, late afternoon saw our attention turned to the impending storm surge. Fortunately, the Environment Agency warning system enabled residents at 'Gib' to evacuate well before the predicted surge tide. All the reserve's cattle and sheep had been moved to high parts of the dunes, and the flood barrier was closed at 4.30pm. Ninety minutes before high tide, I was stood at the flood barrier — the tide height already higher than the biggest tide I have ever witnessed in twenty years in the area. At this point we went knocking on neighbours' doors to alert them to the likelihood of property flooding and I went home to pull everything of value off the floor and out of low shelves and drawers.
Inevitably water bypassed the flood barrier and was streaming north up the Gibraltar Road towards various properties. The Visitor Centre and Wash Study Centre had flooded up to 2ft high. Tidal water breached the west dunes in two places sending torrents of water well into the dunes and across the road. The most frightening aspect of this incident though was the breaching of the sea bank "Bulldog Bank" across the northern part of the reserve. It was too dangerous to approach this area in the darkness but the noise of moving water was immense — probably thousands of cubic meters per minute."
The breached "Bulldog Bank" at Gibraltar Point (Photo: Kev Wilson)
"The final tide height made nearly 2m above the predicted tide, which was already a high spring tide. Water continued to move through the breaches, along the road and up to the golf course until around 11pm — some 3–4 hours after predicted tide peak.
At dawn the following morning, there was an unusual sense of calm. Surprisingly, the flood waters had already drained off most of the Gibraltar Road into the sandy substrate on each side. There was extensive flooding at the Visitor Centre and residential complex and three residents immediately became "homeless". A good deal of property was damaged. The most dramatic scene was the total inundation of the low-lying areas between the East and West Dunes for over 1km north of the breached sea wall right up through the golf course north of the reserve."
Internal flood damage in Field Station Annexe at Gibraltar Point (Photo: George Gregory)
"The Freshwater Marsh had clearly been under at least two metres of water although maybe half of this height had drained down — water going back through the breached sea bank, leaving a strandline of flotsam and jetsam along the dune edge to mark the extreme height of the event.
The Bird Observatory building in the East Dunes had water up to the windows and even kit and books that had been moved to high shelving ended up flooded. The bird hide at the Mere was flooded up to half its height and was still not accessible over four days later. The main pathways from the car parks were both extensively flooded, other footpaths, steps and bridges suffered significant damage, stock fencing was flattened and covered in flotsam. The scene of devastation was not safe for visitor access and the reserve was closed off."
Tide mark on the outside of Gibraltar Point Bird Observatory, 8th December (Photo: George Gregory)
"Four days after the event, the landscape has completely changed. A flat, low-lying freshwater marsh and dry dune area has been turned into a massive, saltwater lagoon. The ecology will be significantly changed and there may even be local extinctions of some species that rely upon dry or freshwater environments. Hibernating animals must have been impacted upon: Grass Snakes, amphibians — particularly our small population of Natterjack Toads — as well as Water Voles.
Much of the area currently underwater is dune slack meadow; an internationally scarce and important habitat, particularly for its floristic community. Plant diversity here is such that up to 30 species could be found per square meter in parts. Among the yellow rattle, bird's foot trefoil, lady's smock and cowslips, thousands of orchids complimented the range of colours in summer. Surely the ecology will change significantly.
Part of our work now will be to monitor the recovery of species and habitats. There is always optimism. Nature can be amazingly resilient and mobile species such as birds and dragonflies etc will be the first 're-colonisers'.
However in the longer term, such incursions serve to remind us that coastal land is no longer accreting — sea levels are changing and the sea wants to advance inland.
The Wildlife Trusts Living Landscapes concept recognises this issue and, as with the built environment, we cannot expect natural habitats will remain unchanged over the long term. We have to continue to look for opportunities to allow important habitats to develop inland of their current line."
Plenty more photographs — as well as latest sightings and access updates — can be found on the Gibraltar Point Bird Observatory blog. Fortunately, the nearby RSPB reserves at Frampton Marsh and Freiston Shore remained unscathed and are open as normal.
The north-facing coast of North Norfolk received the full force of Thursday night's storm surge, with damage extensive at a number of reserves, and the shape of the coast itself changed forever. The events of Thursday and Friday were perhaps captured most vividly at Cley, where a photograph of a seal swimming along the A149 coastal road past a 30mph speed limit sign made a number of national newspapers. However, the event was far from restricted to the Cley area, as Snettisham and Titchwell RSPB warden Paul Eele explains:
"Friday 5th December 2013 will live long in the memory as the day when a storm surge caused a huge impact on the RSPB reserves in North-west Norfolk. The greatest impact was felt at Snettisham, where significant damage was caused to the reserve infrastructure. This has led to a temporary closure of the reserve while a full assessment of the site can be carried out. Initial findings show that the main vehicle access has been washed away, the Shore Hide was inundated by the flood water and its front was ripped off. The most striking damage was caused to the end two hides. The Sanctuary Hide was picked up by the water, turned through 180 degrees and set back down on the shingle. Amazingly, no damage seems to have been done to this hide. Roost Hide wasn't so lucky: it has been completely destroyed and, to date, we have not located it. We assume it has sunk to the bottom of the lagoons. At present we have no timescale as to when the reserve will be fully re-opened, but we hope to have some areas open by the Christmas break."
Above: Sanctuary Hide rotated 180° with windows facing the sky; the huge breach in the roost bank; debris-strewn bank and benches still in place where Roost Hide used to be; inside Shore Hide (Photos: Paul French)
"Titchwell fared much better, although there was some significant damage here too. The beach boardwalk has been damaged beyond repair and the sand dunes have been washed away completely between the reserve and Brancaster. We did suffer some minor overtopping of the new seawalls but without the recent Coastal Change Project, the reserve would have probably been completely flooded. A small section of seawall along the Autumn Trail has been damaged and will need some structural repair before the trail reopens next year."
The damaged beach boardwalk at Titchwell RSPB (Photo: Paul Eele)
In a similar vein to nearby Titchwell, the reserves at Holme NWT and NOA appeared to escape the worst of the storm surge. Aside from a few uprooted pines, the dune ridge retreating slightly and much of the area being inundated with debris, comparatively little structural damage has been noted, while a saltwater lagoon formed at the west end of the golf course.
Above: the new lagoon on Holme golf course; flooding came a little too close for comfort; retreat of the dunes; the pines inundated with debris and sand (Photos: Penny Clarke)
Having fared particularly badly in previous events, the Cley area was always likely to suffer extensive flooding and consequent damage and disruption. CEO of Norfolk Wildlife Trust, Brendan Joyce, was at Cley Marshes NWT on Friday 6th to witness the effects of the flood, and released the following statement:
"The reserve has flooded up to and including the coast road and the lower car park to the visitor centre, although the visitor centre itself is unharmed. We are hopeful that the water will recede quickly now that the worst has passed and only then can we properly assess the damage to habitats and site infrastructure. The North (Swarovski) Hide has been completely destroyed but the others remain standing and when the water has receded we will be able to see the effect on these, the boardwalk and paths, fences, gates bridges and other site infrastructure. We are concerned about a number of breaches in the shingle ridge and believe it is essential that these are repaired by Environment Agency at the earliest opportunity."
Above: Cley's three famous hides under water; the visitor centre and the flooded A149, 6th December (Photos: Oliver Reville)
"We now face a very big clear-up and repair operation indeed as there will be a lot of debris and vegetation to remove and infrastructure to repair and replace. As far as longer-term impacts are concerned, previous experience of such events, whilst devastating in the short term, suggest that the habitats will make a full recovery although this will take time. For example, the numbers of freshwater fish and invertebrates in the freshwater dykes and pools will need to build up again and the grazing marshes may take a year or two to fully recover.
We have been in this situation before and no doubt will be again, but we remain confident that this rare event does not spell doom for the reserves and that they will recover.
The visitor centre and reserve have been inaccessible today and the reserve is likely to remain so until the water has receded and we can repair access routes and visitor facilities. But we aim to re-open the centre as soon as the coast road can be reopened and the car park cleared of debris to make it safe to access. Please check our website for regular updates. Our other coastal reserve, NWT Holme Dunes, and those in the Broads thankfully have not suffered as we feared they might."
Above: the A149 at Salthouse; Blakeney quay; Blakeney Harbour and Point (Photos: Oliver Reville)
Fortunately, flood waters around Blakeney, Cley and Salthouse have now receded, with the area gradually becoming more accessible. That does not detract from the fact that the NWT now faces a huge clean-up operation in an attempt to re-open the reserve as soon as possible, and the lasting effects of Thursday and Friday's events are yet to be realised.
The A149 strewn with debris by Walsey Hills NOA, after the floods had receded (Photo: Penny Clarke)
Many more evocative shots of flooding in the 'Cley Square' can be viewed on Oliver Reville's Flickr photostream, while Penny Clarke has produced her own exhaustive report on the flooding between Holme and Cley, which can be viewed on her blog.
The impacts of the flood were not limited to Norfolk's coastline. Hickling Broad and Thorpe Marshes managed to escape with minimal damage, but the effects have been felt along the Yare Valley at Strumpshaw, as warden Ben Lewis explains:
"At Strumpshaw Fen RSPB Reserve we are very used to flooding in the winter months so, with news of the surge, I was expecting the worst. The river did flow over the banks and into the reserve, but no lasting physical damage was caused. The remaining water itself is the problem: it is very saline, which could potentially damage the very fragile freshwater ecology of the fen. All sluices are open to drain saltwater off and freshwater back into the fen; we hope this process of flushing will be complete before lasting damages are sustained."
Generally, neighbouring Suffolk wasn't quite as extensively affected as Norfolk, but there were problems nonetheless, with some reserves faring worse than others. Apart from some flooding, the RSPB's flagship reserve at Minsmere was largely unaffected thanks to recent sea defence works — just North Marsh was inundated by tidal flooding and, in the words of RSPB's Ian Barthorpe, this "should recover relatively quickly." A lake formed just inside the dunes, and this temporarily blocked access to the beach from North Wall, as well as isolating both East Hide and the Public Viewpoint. Aside from this area, the reserve remains open as normal.
Access to the beach from North Wall at Minsmere was cut off by flooding (Photo: Ian Barthorpe)
Both North Warren and Boyton & Hollesley Marshes reserves remained unaffected, although a large section of the shingle ridge was breached at Dingle Marshes leading to much of the area being inundated with saltwater. A similar situation applies to the reserve at Snape Marshes.
However, the worst of the surge appears to have besieged Havergate Island, which was completely submerged and suffered two big breaches. Ian Barthorpe explained that the situation is "worse than feared with all infrastructure damaged or moved ... we know that two hides have moved on the tide and the toilet shed is perched in a tree ... some of the island's famous hare population have certainly perished, though some are still there."
Rye Harbour also suffered a sea wall breach at high tide on 6th December, extensively flooding the reserve. A quote on the reserve's Facebook page read: "[the tide] has washed away a large section of the road between Lime Kiln Cottage and the Gooders Hide. The information centre has been also been flooded. Nobody has been hurt and there are other areas of the nature reserve that can be enjoyed..."
The force of the incoming tide is captured well in this video.
Salthouse freshmarsh inundation, 6th December 2013 (Video: Robin Chittenden/www.birdlineeastanglia.co.uk)
As this summary has hopefully demonstrated, the extent of the damage caused by the storm surge witnessed across Britain has been nothing short of catastrophic for our coastal nature reserves and ecosystems. While much of the attention has been focussed on England's east coast, it must not be forgotten that other parts of the country — for example North Wales and parts of north-west England — also suffered greatly. Though the events of Thursday and Friday have caused short-term devastation and have left many facing a costly clean-up operation in the days leading up to Christmas, it is always stirring to see so much positivity in the face of adversity, although the full effects of the are event unlikely to be realized until months have passed. As has been reflected in the words of a number of contributors to this piece, the short-term devastation caused is overshadowed by the knowledge that nature is dogged and tenacious. Exceptional events such as this have occurred in the past and will again in the future, and nature will continue to rebound from them — it may take time, but ecosystems will be restored as species gradually re-colonize.
We'd like to say a huge thank you to all those that have contributed photos and information to this article, particularly during such a busy period for wardens and volunteers alike as damage assessment surveys are carried out and the clean-up operation begins along our coasts. A number of reserves remain closed, although some are now re-opening — it is worth checking before planning any visits in the coming days and weeks.
The RSPB yesterday [10th December 2013] launched a 'Storm appeal', and are asking for donations to help fund the repair work needed at reserves right along the coast. For more information, visit www.rspb.org.uk/supporting/campaigns/flood-appeal.
Lincolnshire Wildlife Trust also faces a massive clean-up operation with many of their reserves, including Donna Nook, Gibraltar Point and Far Ings, severely affected. If you would like to donate, please visit http://lincstrust.org.uk/support/donate.php. Please give what you can.
A big thanks must go to all contributors who spent their valuable time putting together summaries, quotes and photographs from around the coast. These include David Steel (Farnes), Tim Jones (Spurn), Mike Andrews (Blacktoft Sands), Mandy West and Graham Catley (Lincolnshire), Kevin Wilson (Gibraltar Point), Paul Eele and Paul French (Snettisham/Titchwell), Penny Clarke (Norfolk), Oliver Reville (Cley) and Ian Barthorpe (Suffolk).
Special thanks to Alan Tilmouth for his work over the weekend in obtaining photographs and other material a number of sources.