News story

East coast tidal surge: 1 year on

Natural England’s work in areas affected by the tidal surge of December 2013 has helped the recovery of the rural economy.

The tidal surge that hit the east coast of England on 5 December 2013 was the most serious for 60 years.

The surge was a result of a combination of high winds, low pressure and high tides pushing a ‘bulge’ of water into both the Irish and North seas. The North Sea reached more than 2 metres above predicted tide levels, putting a serious strain on sea defences all along the east coast. People living along the length of the coast felt the full impact of the extreme weather conditions, with more than 1,000 homes flooded.

The tidal surge had a serious impact on some of England’s most popular coastal visitor destinations and resulted in damage to public footpaths, bridges, beach steps, birdwatching hides, fencing and field gates. During the traditionally busy late winter and early spring visitor season the damage caused by the storm posed a threat to environmental tourism at many sites and to the associated rural economy of the east coast of England.

Tidal surge project

Natural England was quick to take action in responding to the tidal surge and the serious impact it had on important coastal wildlife sites. We worked with our partners to help them clean up after the storm and to restore public access to some of the east coast’s finest nature reserves as rapidly as possible.

In the months following the tidal surge, Natural England invested more than £500,000 in aiding the recovery of important wildlife areas. This has helped repair and replace visitor facilities including rebuilding birdwatching hides, repairing fences and reinstating visitor access. Recipients of our funding have included the Yorkshire, Lincolnshire, Norfolk, Suffolk and Kent Wildlife Trusts, North Lincolnshire Council, the RSPB and National Trust.

The aim was to get important visitor destinations open in time for Easter 2014. Thanks to some excellent partnership working, supported by the funding from Natural England, all of the sites were back in business in time for the Easter holidays.

Replacing visitor facilities and public access

The Norfolk Wildlife Trust and National Trust suffered extensive damage to their nature reserves at Cley and Salthouse Marshes, particularly to grazing infrastructure and visitor facilities. The famous and much-loved thatched bird hides at Cley Marshes, which are essential to visitor enjoyment and important in avoiding disturbance to wildlife, were badly damaged. Natural England funded the purchase of local reed and the hire of a skilled thatcher for the repairs. We provided grants to replace livestock and for the purchase of fencing materials and field gates. We also funded the purchase of specialist equipment to monitor the salinity of the grazing land after it had been inundated with sea water during the surge.

Birling Gap near Eastbourne is one of the most popular visitor destinations on the world famous Seven Sisters chalk cliffs in East Sussex. This site experienced 7 years’ of erosion in the winter of 2013 to 2014. As a result of the tidal surge the steps that provided the only access to the popular beach were unusable. With support from Natural England the beach steps have now been repaired so that an estimated 250,000 people each year can once again enjoy a visit to the beach and the marine nature reserve. The visitor facilities at the site are now more resilient to future extreme weather events as the beach steps are designed so that they can be moved if the cliffs recede further.

A large section of the road down to the Spurn Head National Nature Reserve was washed away during the tidal surge. To reinstate this road is unrealistic as the peninsula is entering a period of dynamic change having been fixed in place for the last 160 years by now redundant sea defences. To enable the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust (YWT) to continue to manage the site, Natural England provided a grant that helped them to buy a large vehicle which can be used to transport materials for habitat restoration work on the reserve. YWT has also run some public safaris to help visitors to access the tip of Spurn Point.

A more resilient future

Part of Natural England’s role is to help habitats and the species they support to become more resilient to extreme weather. As a result of the tidal surge there has been an opportunity to make nature reserves more resilient to future storm events.

Natural England worked with the Environment Agency, National Trust and the local community at Blakeney Freshes in north Norfolk to come up with a flood management scheme that sustainably conserves wildlife, while at the same time building in future climate change adaptation and resilience. Blakeney Freshes covers around 160 ha of freshwater grazing marsh of which about half is owned and managed by the National Trust as part of the Blakeney National Nature Reserve. The site is located within the North Norfolk Coast Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and has Site of Special Scientific Interest, Special Protection Area and Ramsar designations. The Freshes is protected from coastal flooding by a long length of clay embankment which extends between the villages of Cley and Blakeney. The North Norfolk Coastal Path runs along the top of this embankment.

Coastal footpath reopened to walkers

The storm surge tide last year overtopped the full length of the embankment resulting in multiple breaches and damage to the structure. This resulted in the complete inundation of the marshes with saltwater, which was bad news for freshwater wildlife. The coastal path was also closed for safety reasons. In an area that is heavily reliant on income from tourism there was understandable concern from local businesses about the impact of the closure on the local economy. Natural England worked closely with the Environment Agency, Norfolk County Council and the National Trust to allow safe access to the path for walkers as quickly as possible and the works were successfully completed in time for Easter 2014.

In November 2014 work was completed that gives the embankment a new design with a lower and wider crest and shallower slopes. This will be more resilient to damage during any future surge events. Alongside improvements to the existing sluices and drainage system this will also reduce the time that saltwater stands on the marshes.

Natural England has also helped fund similar sustainable embankment repair works at Havergate Island in Suffolk, which was also seriously damaged by the tidal surge.