Famous five lead fight for life

Norfolk Coast species chosen to lead the way for nature recovery at this critical point 

As a protected area, the Norfolk Coast is rich in valuable species and habitats. Across the country areas of outstanding natural beauty are working together to focus on nature protection in the face of species collapse.
The 2019 Colchester Declaration, signed by all such areas, commits that by each immediately adopting a species on the threatened list and by preparing and delivering an action plan, at least thirty species will be made safe by 2030.
The Norfolk Coast Partnership has chosen not one but five of its natural wonders to headline this work around species recovery following this national commitment.

“The point is that species are all linked by habitat – and so by looking after one, we help others,” said Estelle Hook, manager of the Norfolk Coast Partnership: “We are excited about the work ahead on this cohesive approach to landscape scale conservation and what we can do to progress this with our colleagues in other protected areas and the conservation sector – as well as with the public. We are all part of nature and everyone can do something to help.”

The top five list was not easy to make – and may change in the future, she said. “To choose the Norfolk Coast five we looked, with our partners, at a range of species types, conservation status, seasonality, and geography, to factor in as many of the area’s landscapes as possible. We also looked at how much the focus on one species will benefit others, and how they linked to conserving and enhancing the area.”

“It was a tough choice and there were many that we would have liked to include, for example plants, invertebrates and amphibians – but the idea is that they will reap the benefit through work with the Norfolk Coast top five. This is not an exclusive list – all species and habitats interconnect and our focus is on helping species recovery across the board, as well as getting key species off the threatened list.”

Conservation bodies including the RSPB, Norfolk Rivers Trust, National Trust and Norfolk Wildlife Trust have ensured that the coast has provided a haven for these species. But in the face of species collapse, we need to increase our efforts and understanding to work together at a landscape scale – and change our behaviour.
Over these pages we look in more detail at the chosen five species, with condition updates from the Norfolk Wildlife Trust on each species – and a poem for each, commissioned to express the wonder of the species and the seriousness of their plight.

Thanks to Norfolk Coast Partnership representative for the arts Veronica Sekules, and artist and writer Karen Frances Eng, the GroundWork Gallery, King’s Lynn, held a weekend online poetry retreat in March. Eight poets, from as close as Norfolk, Suffolk and Cambridgeshire, and as far as Scotland and Sri Lanka, met and between them wrote over 21 poems after much research, testing and discussion. Here we publish a selection for the first time. The full series will be available soon online.

Veronica Sekules said: “As we were preparing the GroundWork poetry weekend retreat programme, and learning about our five indicative species, it was shocking to read how many of them are suffering as a result of public attention. Of course, as tourists we are curious about the environments we visit.”

“But to hear time and again that ‘public disturbance’ and ‘dog nuisance’ are threatening the viability of breeding species, shows how intrusive and destructive this can be. More serious still, there are problems caused by pollution, development and the myriad excesses of human intervention – from cars, roads, noise, street lights, to agro-chemicals.”

“The work that the Norfolk Coast Partnership is doing to bring to public attention the fragile state of the nature under their care is admirable, the more so, as they are adopting such positive attitudes. The Dark Skies Festival is an example of how they are taking a creative approach to addressing a pollution problem, celebrating positive benefits rather than shutting things down or being draconian. It is always a great bonus to have the role of art acknowledged as a force in changing attitudes and habits and inspiring good sustainable environmental practice. So, for GroundWork to be involved in helping, via poetry, to address some of the problems of species collapse was very welcome. Quickly the weekend sold out. Karen Eng has run workshops for us before and is building a loyal following. But also, I think people really valued being able to use their writing skill to do some good for nature.”

Karen Eng said: “It seemed a radical experiment: when I proposed a weekend poetry workshop to convene poets specifically to celebrate these five key species, I was unsure of the outcome. After all, poems can’t be forced to a deadline, and, especially during lockdown, many of us have been physically far removed from the animals and their habitat. Would poets really want or be able to carry out the research required and generate poems in such a short time?”

“I needn’t have worried. To my astonishment, not only did the workshop sell out within days, but by the time I was headed for bed the night after the first day’s session, poems were already hitting my inbox.”

“Coming in a delightful range of unique styles and voices, the poems written during the weekend offer illuminating, heartfelt ways to access the wonder, pathos and humour of the creatures the NCP has chosen to highlight. Such is nature’s power to inspire – and the willingness of artists to step up on its behalf.”

1. Little Tern
Little Pickie’s heroic journey

Helping this bird of the coastal strip will also benefit ringed plover and other beach nesting birds, which lay their eggs directly on the ground with little protection.

Norfolk name is ‘Little Pickie’, because the way they skillfully ‘pick’ fish from the sea. They weigh the same as a tennis ball. The male carries a fish to attract a mate; and they live – and breed – into their 20s; migrating to West Africa every year. The National Trust report that in 2014, a little tern was found to have died at Blakeney, having been ringed as a chick in Lincolnshire 21 years previously. The bird, a female, had an egg inside, so was still breeding at 21, having migrated between England and Africa 19 times during her life. This was the oldest little tern ring recovery, until the Farne Islands found one 21 years and 10 months old soon afterwards.

Disturbance by humans and predation, by kestrels for example. ‘Where people go, nests fail’ say experts. The British breeding population is now thought to be less than 2,000 pairs, having declined by 25% since the 1980s – despite efforts. Last year although some areas reported stable numbers, of 55 nesting pairs in Winterton there were no surviving chicks from an entire breeding season.

Look out for fenced off areas of the beach and avoid them; keep dogs under close control. Walk on the strand line near the sea rather than up on the shingle.

‘Norfolk is a significant county for the little tern, they breed on several beaches along the coast and where possible are protected by a number of conservation bodies including the Norfolk Wildlife Trust: at the Holme Dunes reserve up to 25 pairs breed each spring. The Trust employs a seasonal little tern warden to assist the resident warden to monitor and protect the colony. Fencing is erected to ensure people do not disturb the birds. However, along with having to deal with naturally occurring predators, the birds are easily worried by dogs and their owners approaching too close, so we try to educate people to give the colony a wide berth. Rising sea levels and unseasonal storms can also wreck a breeding season, however numbers are holding and with proper consideration by the public should continue to do so. The adults can be seen feeding along the water’s edge near colonies, so they can be seen without approaching the nest site. The fenced areas can also act as a ‘safe area’ for other breeding birds particularly ringed plover.’

by Melinda Appleby

at grey tide edge

little tern hovers

holding its gaze seaward

watching the cold water for

slippery sand eels

before its plunge

yellow daggered and

straight through the wave

returning up and up and higher

sand eel held tight as it soars above 

then in a dance down to sand it offers its

token of courtship to the female below starting its

summer breeding on the Norfolk beach where it was born three

years ago and now in the small scrape of shell and sand on the pebbled

strand the eggs are laid as mottled as the land beneath and here, here

the sea swallow raises young with hope that fox and kestrel let    

them live and no dog or human appears on the tideline!

2. Pink Footed Goose
Skeins a thrilling sight

These long-travelled flocks of birds show the links between coastal, inland and global habitats. It doesn’t breed in the UK, but large numbers spend the winter here, arriving from their breeding grounds in Spitsbergen, Iceland and Greenland. Pink foots provide an unforgettable sight flying in ‘skeins’ to roost. Often to be seen in large groups on inland grazing marshes or winter wheat-fields; they have learnt to enjoy the discarded sugar-beet tops left lying on muddy fields after harvest.

This ‘grey’ goose is predominately brown, and relatively diminutive, its chocolate coloured head and small brown, orange banded bill are defining features. In Norfolk huge skeins of pink-footed geese in their classic V-formations, can be seen in their thousands; they listen for them uttering their high-pitched honk of ‘wink-wink’.

Numbers in England are on the increase, particularly in Norfolk, probably due to better protection of winter roosts. But they are highly vulnerable to disturbance and development – and as farmers change their crop practices the geese are less able to forage.

Keep your dog under control if you are near roosting grounds – these birds need to conserve energy for their long journeys.

‘Norfolk has become, once again, important winter quarters for this species. From a low in the 1950s of only a few thousand, counts of well over 150,000 birds have been noted in recent years and this represents a large proportion of the world population. It is important to engage with farmers concerning leaving these fields unploughed for as long as possible. Breeding in Iceland and Greenland, successive poor summers and heavy predation of goslings can affect the population, but it is disturbance, changes in agriculture and land development in Norfolk that is their greatest threat, so their protection needs constant vigilance and like many migratory birds, a global strategy.’


by Melinda Appleby

Dawn breaks pink across the mudflats

thin lemon bands slicing sky from sea,

night leaches from the land, tide sucking 

sinking down. Salt-smelling, mud-dabbling

geese wake from their winter roost, necks up 

heading to the runway, jostling, expectant. 

Far out container ships slip by unheard. 

Sun flushes across a lens of cloud, geese press 

forward, little test jumps, taxiing to take-off, 

up, up, into ragged skeins threading across

the eastern sky. Hundreds, thousands, calling, 

weaving black-stitched music above the saltings

heading south in search of sugar beet. 

Below, redshank pipes into now-empty marsh.

Fly with them, as sinuous creeks ease into hedged

fields, spilling their song down in a wild goose 

morning, only a lone wildfowler sees them go.

And here, where the harvester yesterday left 

the sliced green heads of beet, they gather

feeding, fattening, blessing our sweet tooth. 

And lorries take the lumpy roots to Wissington.

Geese spill down, whiffling to lose height, 

dropping, dropping, gliding in to land 

and facing the wind, pink feet drop, calling,

wink-wink, we’re here. Soft mushroom-brown

plumage, legs and bill dusk pink, they paint 

their way across the field as early light fades away.

“They’re back – the pinks” voices cry, yapping delight.

Far out container ships slip by unheard. 

Below, redshank pipes into now-empty marsh.

And lorries take the lumpy roots to Wissington.

“They’re back – the pinks” voices cry, yapping delight.

Watch in awe when pinkfeet fly

making our winter landscape sing. 


by Rob Knee

I waited for you, standing sentry on Cromer pier that points

like a damp finger, windward and to where,

over the slate-grey chest of ocean,

you came at last:

Flying low, in delta formation,

far beneath the radar of coastal warning posts 

disguised as golf balls, not watching for geese,

but looking North and East.

My watering eyes later cast upwards

as you flew south in pulsing skeins, wheezing and resolute,

outbound, to stand and feed impassively 

on Broadland beet fields.

Once, I followed you to Snettisham
to try to catch

your homecoming, to hear the
familiar cacophony of greetings, 

but I just missed the fleeting magic

of your twilight convocation. 

I was left alone with the last flames
of a sunset

that tinged the copses in the West
to a coal-black silhouette,

and with the steady hiss of an
Arctic sea

playing idly with the shingle bank.  

3. Harbour or Common Seal
Beach Pups

The sea and the beach along the coast.

Harbour, or common, seals are marine mammals, more vulnerable and smaller than grey seals, with rounded heads and large brown eyes. They breed during the summer months. Males live up to 20 years, females up to 30 years.

Threats include disturbance by people and dogs; (mother may lose or abandon their pups if they are forced into the sea trying to avoid); marine waste and litter; pollution and storms.

Stay well away from seals if you see them and keep dogs under close control.

‘In Norfolk the Harbour seal breeding population is concentrated on the sandbanks out in the Wash. Occasionally harbour seals will pup on coastal beaches and as this is during the summer, disturbance is a problem. It is believed the canine distemper that was in the grey seal population may have been transferred into the species from dogs. As with all marine mammals, pollution, boat strike and entanglement in fishing gear is a problem. Education is an important factor in protecting this species.’


by Clare Woroniecka

Don’t mistake me for a dog.

As you were drawing my whiskers

You imagined the way his nose

Feels nuzzling your hand –

The wiry soft touch.

My whiskers are for rummaging

Down where it’s hard to see

Searching, standing out stiff

A mystery

An orgy of senses in the gloom.

I turn 

She follows me down as she must,

Still wet from birth.

Green gold liquid calls

Salty tang draws

She will follow to deeper wells of unknown

In time.

Her body already knows:

Flick of her tail, turn of her flippers.

And out under the sky to lie and lie

My head held up alert

She is lost in the glorious creamy lap.

We are selkies, she and me

Goddesses of swimming – nimble flicks, sensuous glide

Turning, turning, through, down, up.

Our ancestors clubbed to death

Envied for our fur

Disturbed by our seeing

Under the silver blue, down in the dreamy swaying

We are Queens.

She will inherit

Kelp castles

Royal cape, streamlined insulation,

Chilling underworlds,

A crown of knives in her mouth

To tear flesh,

crunch bones

4. Barbastelle Bat
Rarest of mammals

Known as the ‘bat of the landscape’ as they rely on good quality countryside with space to forage and live. A keystone species, they represent the wider health of the ecosystem. Stronghold in parts of the Norfolk coast, with links to historic and cultural buildings. Looking after their range of habitats, from woodland edges to farmland and freshwater bodies, links to dark skies and issues of light pollution, will also benefit other bat species and invertebrates.

They are fast, agile flyers and specialist foragers in a range of habitats, swooping to drink from ponds or lakes. In summer they often emerge early from their daytime roosts to forage in the dark zone amongst trees until open area light levels have fallen to those existing under tree canopies; then they may forage in quite open areas. Baby bats are born in July in the maternity roost; during this time males tend to live a solitary existence.

The Barbastelle bat is one of the UK’s rarest mammals, with estimates of between 5,000 and 10,000 individuals, and there are only five known maternity roosts. Norfolk is one of this species strongholds. The extensive loss of deciduous woodland in the UK may be a significant factor in the rarity of this species. Use of artificial fertilisers and pesticides reduces insect diversity and may lead to indirect poisoning of bats, and pesticide run-off in water can severely disrupt aquatic insect abundance. Bats foraging over wet meadows mostly prey on micromoths, therefore measures to improve the quality of water meadows for the benefit of micromoths will provide better foraging opportunities for barbastelles.

Inform yourself about bats and their needs, and follow guidance about external lighting to protect bat prey such as moths.

‘Paston Hall’s 15th century Great Barn on the north-east Norfolk coast is the only known maternity roost in a building. The roost is protected and a working group has been set up to monitor the population. This population is close to the coast and often forages along the sandy cliff-tops nearby. The species favours pastoral landscapes with patches of deciduous woodland and bodies of water. The bat has declined in recent years due to a reduction in insect prey, loss and disturbance of roosts and fragmentation of ancient semi-natural woodland. In Norfolk a major road building scheme threatens an important population in the Wensum Valley.’

by Annie Sturgeon

Don’t be afraid to walk the fen at night.

At setting sun the early evening light

produces mole-black shadows of delight —

Is that a swallow in the fading light?

or something darker on its dusky flight?

Watch how it’s flitting past with stealth-like ease

dodging and twisting in the evening breeze

fluttering in the shadows of the leaves;

there’s something darker dancing from the trees.

Its pug-face pricked with beady eyes, jet black,

fur of frosted coal-dust on its back, clicks like

a pony trotting down a cobbled track

into a cheeping ‘zip’ with its attack.*

Hunting for micro-moths and softer flies,

serrated wings against the blue-black sky,

along the water’s edge it hawks and dives

and flutters like a tar-smudged dragonfly.

Its birdlike wings, unfeathered, are of skin

night-black and almost tissue thin.

With soundless, flapping, agile cape it skims

to scoop emerging flies that rise within.

Day’s yawn imagines magic in the night

between the sun-hot hours and cool starlight

a rare black flitting Barbastelle just might

be something darker on its dusky flight.

At sunset in the early evening light

look out for mole-black shadows of delight —

Was that a swallow in the fading light?

 *The sounds of a Barbastelle translated by a bat detector.

by Alison Dunhill

Beard of stars, star-beard, Barbastelle,

a little white beard distinguishes you

from Pipistrelle and Daubenton or Serotine.

It sprouts under your face’s dark brown fur.

This face is a corbel to fend off evil spirits 

taken from the west portal of Chartres. An ageing ET with

a tiny squashed nose, black, round shiny eyes and

enormous white-edged ears, which are needed for echolocation,

your tracking of nocturnal insect life.

This combination of fur and wing disturbs like good Surrealism.

Your tessellated wings in outstretch are so fine, 

they must have inspired Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic dome, 

or at least the umbrella. And yes, you are a quadruped:

your front and rear stump-limbs elongate elegantly

into two rapturous wings,

which are huge in proportion to your kind-of-cosy furred body.

The three gently angled divisions of each wing 

are surfaced in honeycomb mottling. The only mammal to fly.

This is, after all, a miracle.

5. White-clawed crayfish
Chalk stream rarity

Lives in inland rivers, so will help habitat conservation in inland and agricultural areas; is under threat – Norfolk Coast chalk rivers are some of last remaining sites for this species. Conservation will benefit a wide range of habitats and species in rivers.

Adults may reach over 12 cm from the tip of the rostrum (snout) to the telson (tail plate), but more often are less than 10 cm. Females develop a broader abdomen, which accommodates the brood. The abdominal appendages of the female are more hairy than those of the male and are used to support the mass of eggs, which is glued to them after laying. A ‘berried’ female white-clawed crayfish overwinters with her eggs glued to the underside of her abdomen.

Water pollution from roads, farming chemicals and sewage; intense competition from non-native species signal crayfish, and disease.

Support organisations like the Norfolk Rivers Trust in their work to conserve and restore freshwater habitats; take care not to contaminate rivers with litter or chemicals. To avoid spreading crayfish plague, eggs, seeds, killer shrimp and other uninvited guests check, clean and dry your kit if you are moving between watercourses to fish, canoe, paddle etc.
CHECK kit for creepy crawlies
CLEAN kit in Virkon/hot water
DRY kit for at least 48 hours

‘In Norfolk the white-clawed crayfish have been found in the Wissey, Glaven and Wensum rivers, the latter being a Special Area of Conservation for this native crayfish. The larger non-native signal crayfish can out compete and even attack our white-claw crayfish, but the biggest problem is that it carries a fungus (Aphanomyces astaci), commonly known as crayfish plague, which does not affect them but can be lethal for the native species. Following recent outbreaks local warnings have been given to all water users on the River Waveney in nearby Suffolk, regarding this crayfish plague. The Environment Agency is advising the public to clean any equipment with disinfectant, bleach or anti-fungicidal products. There are a number of breeding programmes around the country, and with better water quality and a greater understanding of the threats to white-clawed crayfish, it is hoped their decline can be reversed.’


by Phil Hawtin

Easy to imagine a Disney-like dance of joy

to the revived rhythm of the river

with the waving of weed, 

slur of gravel moving gently

in our increasingly sweet flowing waters

with impediments like mills reduced.

Crayfish dance involving bronze carapace, abdomen, 

centipedal movement of walking legs, swimmerets, 

much waving of white under-sided claws, antennae.

Hiding under stones daytime

to emerge at night to sashay, eat omnivorously.

But this is not how species fade away —

Invader, signal crayfish, is bigger,

muscles in on the dance floor

taking habitat and food

and carries within its shell a virus

that, only to the native counterpart,

is deadly.


by Alanna Shaikh

The crayfish mother, protecting her young to adulthood, takes a number of steps:

Overwinters with eggs glued to her abdomen, hides from predators in cool safe mud

When the eggs are hatchlings, clinging to her, she digs out from the burrow

They follow her for two moultings 

then as adults they swim free in the river  

The human mother, protecting her young to adulthood, does something similar:

Restricts screen time, ensures good nutrition

Requires exercise and education and hygiene

When they’re ready, she forces them out of the burrow

hoping they’ll swim free in the river

There are differences, of course

Invertebrate, vertebrate

Literal and metaphorical rivers

The plague that crayfish risk was introduced by humans 

The plagues that humans risk were not in fact introduced by crayfish but also by humans

Our spinal cord bears additional agency 

I might be jealous of the mother crayfish

Her maternal decisions are simple, based on body shape

wide abdomen with hairy growths is just right to hold hatchlings and eggs

My own decisions are more complex—

attempting to protect not just my own offspring

but the crayfish babies too, and the fish and the herons that eat them 

I can’t exactly say it’s unfair

I do, after all, have a spine.

by R.H.Sykes

A whirl of pink-footed geese

Descended at Holkham to feast

When they all started honking

The noise was quite stonking

But they soon crammed their beaks full
of beets.

A slick Barbastelle from Paston

Was looking for something to snack on

Just a few rapid clicks

And he was licking his lips

Ah, the wonders of echolocation.

The white-clawed crayfish in the Glaven

Are creatures who are well worth saving

They live out their dreams

In sparkling chalk streams

So please do not disturb their haven.