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Our work at Blakeney National Nature Reserve

Rangers monitoring grey seals on the beach at Blakeney National Nature Reserve, Norfolk in winter
Rangers monitoring grey seals on the beach at Blakeney National Nature Reserve | © National Trust Images/Ian Ward

Discover the work we do throughout the year to keep Blakeney safe and pristine for wildlife and visitors alike. Learn about the tasks National Trust rangers and volunteers carry out, from the annual seal-pup count to essential maintenance work such as repairing fences.

Essential repairs to the Lifeboat House on Blakeney Point

February 2023

Work has begun to put up scaffolding around the iconic lifeboat house on Blakeney Point. Getting the scaffolding in place has been quite a challenge due to the tides, location logistics and site access.

This will enable contractors to replace the windows on the lookout tower, carry out repairs to the roof and to inspect and replace the guttering where needed.

European eel monitoring

European eel eggs are spawned in the Sargasso Sea, more than 5000km away, where they float on the current and hatch into larvae that transform into glass eels along the way. When they arrive the eels, also known as elvers, are small and transparent but will eventually grow to be up to one metre long over their 25 to 30-year lifespan in Norfolk’s marshes and dykes.

As part of regular eel monitoring, the ranger team use 'eel mops' which are placed at sluice gates on Blakeney Freshes to catch juvenile eels, also known as elvers. The eels are measured and counted before being released to carry on their journeys further inland. From May to June, we expect to find around 20 eels a day. Since the 1980s there has been a more than 90pc decline in the species due to an increase in ocean pollution among other factors.

The slippery sea creatures adapt to freshwater and mature in rivers over several decades until they are ready to migrate back to the Sargasso Sea to reproduce and die, restarting the cycle.

‘They really are fascinating creatures and it’s amazing that any make it this far.’

| National Trust ranger, Carl Brooker

Annual seal-pup survey

The grey seal breeding season runs from late October until early January and during this time we try to estimate the size of the colony. With over 4,000 pups born each year, it’s no small task. You can read more about the annual seal-pup survey in the Grey seals on Blakeney Point article.

Beach cleaning

We organise beach cleans to remove litter and debris from the beach. This gives the terns and other ground-nesting birds a clear beach to return to and nest on. These are our single-biggest volunteering events of the year, with dozens of people giving up their time to help look after this special place.

Two little tern eggs lying in a depression in the sand on a beach in the north of England
Little tern eggs | © National Trust Images/Dougie Holden

Ensuring safe nesting sites for ground-nesting birds

Many of the birds that breed on the North Norfolk Coast, such as terns, ringed plovers, avocets and oystercatchers, choose to nest on the ground.

This leaves them vulnerable to natural threats, such as predators and tidal inundation but also to disturbance by humans and our dogs.

Each nesting season we put up signage and temporary fences to protect the most vulnerable areas and ask that you keep your dog on a lead in the area.

Protecting breeding tern colonies

From April to August, Blakeney Point is a nationally important nesting site for four species of tern: little, common, Arctic and Sandwich terns.

For two of these species, Blakeney Point is particularly important. As many as 20 per cent of the UK population of sandwich terns and 18 per cent of the UK's little tern population attempts to breed there. The work done by National Trust staff and volunteers to protect these birds is vital to their survival.

Round-the-clock care

The terns first arrive at Blakeney Point in spring, having completed an epic migration from Africa. During the breeding season the rangers live in an old lifeboat house on the end of Blakeney Point to provide a 24-hour watch.

Caring for the bird colonies involves counting nest and fledglings, warding off predators and talking to visitors about the work we do.

Encouraging safe nesting sites

Little terns tend to lay their eggs close to the high-water mark, meaning they’re vulnerable to being washed away by high tides and extreme weather events.

To help prevent this, National Trust rangers sometimes use clay decoys to encourage nesting in more suitable areas of the shoreline. Little terns tend to follow others when it comes to nesting. The clay models are designed to resemble the birds and fool the real terns into nesting in safer places.

Counting fledglings

We divide up the colony into manageable sections and then very carefully walk each area; every step must be considered to avoid stepping on an egg. Tern eggs are hard to see – they're small, pebble-shaped, pebble-coloured and are laid on a bed of pebbles.

‘Little terns have been rapidly declining in the UK for the past few decades. The species is still very much at risk and we’ll need to keep up our efforts to make sure they have safe places to breed.’

– Chris Bielby, Countryside Manager, North Norfolk Coast

Counting pink-footed geese

At Blakeney we take part in a nationwide coordinated count of pink-footed geese (Ansar brachyrhynchus). Originally started in 1960, the census aims to carry out counts in autumn and winter at key locations across the country to provide national population estimates.

This goose is a common winter visitor to this part of the world, travelling to Norfolk all the way from their breeding grounds in Iceland. Around 75 per cent of the world's population of pink-footed geese visit the UK, with over 100,000 coming to Norfolk.

Making the count

Counts are made at dawn and we need to work fast as they seldom stay still. To count them quickly we use a technique called grouping, where we count the birds either in fives or tens. It takes practice, but it allows for a faster count while keeping the increments small enough to give precise numbers.

The view of Blakeney Freshes from Friary Hills at Blakeney National Nature Reserve, Norfolk
The view of Blakeney Freshes from Friary Hills | © National Trust Images/Justin Minns

Scrub management

Friary Hills is small piece of land which is mostly grassland, with scrub of gorse, bramble and sycamore. Left alone, the proportion of scrub cover would steadily increase and mature to become sycamore woodland. This is undesirable because a patchwork of open and shady areas, grassland, shrubs and mature trees promises the highest biodiversity.

Every autumn we carry out scrub management on Friary Hills. The work is always scheduled for this time to avoid the bird nesting season of April to August. We try to do a little bit every season, keeping pace with growth and avoiding the damaging impact of one big hit.

We start by removing a lot of the young sycamore saplings and then move on to the gorse. It's prickly work and after cutting the gorse, we burn it on-site. We minimise the damage caused by the bonfire by burning on corrugated iron and removing the nutrient-rich ash.

Reed cutting

Each winter we carry out the task of reed cutting. Here at Blakeney we do a ‘conservation cut’, which means we do it for the benefit of the wildlife. If you are a regular visitor to this part of the coast you will have seen the reed cutters gathering bundles to be used for thatched roofs.

The aim is to create areas of differing reed ages to provide a variety of habitats. After a few months, fresh green reed starts shooting up, which benefits the bearded tits that live here.

Fence and gate repairs

The land on Blakeney Freshes is grazed by cattle with the aim of getting the grass short by the end of the growing season. Waders such as lapwings and redshanks require this type of habitat to lay their eggs in spring.

Cattle are big beasts though, and they have a habit of scratching themselves on the gate posts. This means that we often have to repair several fences and gate posts to make sure the cattle don’t get loose.

Thank you

With your ongoing support, we're able to continue our vital conservation work. Thank you for helping to protect these special places.

Large flocks of geese flying over Blakeney National Nature Reserve, Norfolk


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