All at sea

The Norfolk coast’s neighbour is a vast and incredible marine protected area. Sam Lew explains how local people have been key to protecting it

We are the natural environment. It’s in our lungs, our blood, our bellies, our minds and our hearts. It sustains us physically, psychologically and spiritually and it is our home.

Over the last century or so our house-keeping, on a planetary scale, has left a lot to be desired. Through global warming, mass species extinction, unprecedented levels of pollution and unsustainable exploitation of our planets resources we are driving a wedge between humanity and the earth we hold so dear.  In response, the conservation movement was born.

The Wash and North Norfolk Coast is one of the last remaining natural wildernesses of England and has been embraced by this movement, boasting the full complement of UK and European designations for nature conservation, although not without controversy. To be part of this movement is to participate in a global effort to protect the natural environment for present and future generations of all life.

A cluster of conservation areas along the Wash and North Norfolk Coast connects the region to a Europe-wide family of marine protected areas that conserve rare, threatened and endangered species and habitats considered important at the biogeographical scale of Europe. Despite the obvious controversies it should be remembered that this designation is about protecting habitats and species, and it is reasonable to assume that neither are too concerned with the politics of the European Union, let alone know of its existence.

This European Marine Site stretches from Lincolnshire’s windswept Gibraltar Point to the golden cliffs of Weybourne in North Norfolk, out to the edge of territorial waters. The regions iconic saltmarshes, awe-inspiring expanses of mudflats, sandflats and winding natural creeks, salt meadows of sea lavender, seals and bird species including Little Terns, Marsh Harriers, Ringed Plover, Oyster Catcher, Knot and Brent Geese to name but a few are all protected under this designation.

Although there are legal duties placed on various authorities to protect these sites, an essential working principle is that human activities occur in conjunction with management to ensure that livelihoods and the region’s rich cultural and historical heritage are protected alongside the natural environment. This is enabled by three ‘Advisory Groups’ that provide a platform for the local community to participate in marine and coastal management and for the regulatory bodies to benefit from the wealth of local expertise. It is the active partnerships between the regulators and community, formed through the Advisory Groups at Boston, King’s Lynn and Wells-next-the-Sea that has led to international recognition of the Wash and North Norfolk Coast as an “exemplar” in marine management. These three jewels in the crown and the people that keep them securely in place are both an inseparable part of the natural environment and the management approach needed to ensure long-term protection for the Wash and North Norfolk Coast.

It is important for us all recognise the role we must play in the protection of this unique and very special coastline. The fragility of the Wash and North Norfolk Coast means it is sensitive to many recreational activities and we all must learn to use the site respectfully to ensure it remains the beautifully wild, vast and delicately intimate place that touches all who have the privilege to visit and call it their home.

Sam Lew is the Wash and North Norfolk Coast European Marine Site manager

I started my working career at the age of fourteen in an aquatic store. I was obsessed with fish keeping and as a boy had wall to wall aquaria in my bedroom, breeding fish and invertebrates from all over the world. A few years later, completely unintentionally, I stumbled into a commercial kitchen and became a full time chef. Then for continuities sake I joined a small crew building timber frame houses, where I worked for a number of years. At twenty-one I decided my love and affinity for the ocean had been put aside long enough so I enrolled on a university access programme so I could go onto study marine biology with oceanography on a three year course. Ten years later in 2015 I graduated with a PhD from the National Oceanography Centre Southampton with my family and friends still to this day being equally as shocked and surprised as they are proud. Between then and now I have been working on a number of community waste management projects and developing community educational nature reserves.