Holkham Bay

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Holkham Beach from board-walk through the pines

Holkham Bay on the north coast of Norfolk is a bay only in the Norfolk sense, that it is not an indentation in the coastline but is sheltered by sandbanks of the foreshore. It opens into the North Sea. The shore of the bay is within the 'Holkham National Nature Reserve'; the largest national nature reserve in East Anglia.

This stretch of coast originally consisted of salt marshes protected from the sea by ridges of shingle and sand, and Holkham's Iron Age fort stood at the end of a sandy spit surrounded by the tidal wetland. Vikings navigated the creeks to establish Holkham village, but access to the former harbour was stopped by drainage and reclamation of the marshes between the coast and the shingle ridge which started in the 17th century, and was completed in 1859.

The Holkham Estate has been owned by the Coke family, later Earls of Leicester since 1609, and their seat at Holkham Hall is opposite the reserve's Lady Anne's Drive entrance. The 3rd Earl planted pines on the dunes to protect the pastures reclaimed by his predecessors from wind-blown sand. The national nature reserve was created in 1967 from 4,200.8 acres of the Holkham Estate and 5,436.3 acres of foreshore belonging to the Crown.

The Reserve

Holkham National Nature Reserve is on the Norfolk coast between Burnham Overy Staithe and Blakeney. It is managed by Natural England with the cooperation of the Holkham Estate. Its 9,640 acres comprise a wide range of habitats, including grazing marsh, woodland, salt marsh, sand dunes and foreshore. The reserve is part of the North Norfolk Coast Site of Special Scientific Interest, and the larger area is additionally protected through 'Natura 2000', Special Protection Area and Ramsar listings, and is part of both an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) and a World Biosphere Reserve. Holkham NNR is important for its wintering wildfowl, especially pink-footed geese, wigeon and brant geese, but it also has breeding waders, and attracts many migrating birds in autumn. A number of scarce invertebrates and plants can be found in the dunes, and the reserve is one of the only two sites in the United Kingdom to have an antlion colony.

The reserve has over 100,000 visitors a year, including birdwatchers, horse riders and (until recently) naturists, and it is therefore significant for the local economy. The reserve has taken steps to control entry to the fragile dunes and other areas important for their animals or plants because of the damage to sensitive habitats that could be caused by unrestricted access. The dunes are an essential natural defence against the projected rises in sea level along this vulnerable coast.


Publicly accessible part of the NNR        Pasture and dunes        Pines
       Tidal foreshore and salt marsh        Roads and car parks        Bird hides.
SHI=Scolt Head Island NNR HB=Holkham Bay WS=Wells salt marshes (part of Holkham NNR)

The reserve lies to the north of A149 coast road, starting just west of Burnham Overy Staithe and extending west past Holkham to Beach Road, Wells-next-the-Sea. It also includes the tidal salt marshes continuing further east to Blakeney.[1] Its total area of about 9,640 acres makes it the largest such reserve in East Anglia.[2] The reserve can be accessed by footpaths from Wells and the villages hereabouts[3] including two long distance footpaths, the Peddars Way and the Norfolk Coast Path that traverses the main part of the reserve, and National Cycle Route 1 loops through the core of the NNR between Holkham and Wells.[4] There is a car park near Holkham village at the north end of Lady Anne's Drive that gives access to two bird hides, and another parking area at the end of Beach Road in Wells. To the east of the Wells channel, the reserve is mainly salt marshes and mud flats, and is difficult and potentially dangerous to access, although a public footpath runs along the southern edge of these tidal areas.[5][6]

The salt marshes on this coast are stated in the Site of Special Scientific Interest notification document to be "among the best in Europe ... the flora is exceptionally diverse". Holkham also has good examples of sand dunes, and the pines planted on the dunes have provided shelter for other trees and shrubs to become established, making this the only substantial area of woodland in the North Norfolk Coast SSSI.[7] The dunes are created and altered by the elements, and the sand islands in Holkham Bay have formed only within the last 60 years.[5] The flat ground inland from the dunes is reclaimed salt marsh that was used as pasture until the 1940s, but converted to arable land during Second World War. The value of the fields to wildlife was reduced by the resulting lower water table, but Natural England's management measures have raised the water levels, attracting breeding and wintering birds.[5] Water management can also be used to ensure a high water table in summer, benefiting breeding waders, and drier conditions in winter, preferred by the geese.[8] The management of water levels and grassland increased the numbers of breeding wetland birds from 120 pairs of ten species in 1986 to 795 pairs of 26 species in 1994, and the number of wintering birds of four key wildfowl species rose from 1,215 to 17,305 in the decade from 1983/84.[9]


The mound of Holkham fort

The coast at Holkham originally consisted of salt marshes protected from the sea by ridges of shingle and sand.[10]

A large Iron Age fort at the end of a sandy spit in the marshes could only be approached along the spit; it enclosed 6 acres and remained in use until the defeat of the Iceni in AD 47.[11]

The Holkham estate has been owned by the Coke family since 1609, and Holkham Hall, built by Thomas Coke, 1st Earl of Leicester between 1734 and 1764, is opposite the Reserve entrance.[12] Until the 17th century, ships could navigate the tidal creeks to reach the staithe (harbour) at Holkham village, but local landowners began to reclaim the marshes from 1639, and the final embankment at Wells was constructed by the 2nd Earl in 1859, completing the conversion of about 1,980 acres to farmland. The 3rd Earl planted Corsican, maritime and Scots pines on the dunes in the late 19th century to shelter the agricultural land from wind-blown sand,[5][10] which is carried inland when the wind speed exceeds 10 feet per second and blows from directions between northwest to northeast.[13]

The Holkham National Nature Reserve was created in 1967 from 4,200 acres of the Holkham Estate and 5,440 acres of intertidal sand and mud flats belonging to the Crown Estate.[2] In 1986 the Reserve was subsumed into the newly created 19,030 acres 'North Norfolk Coast SSSI'. The larger area is now additionally protected through Natura 2000, Special Protection Area (SPA) and Ramsar listings, and is part of the 'Norfolk Coast Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty'.[7] The coast from Holkham NNR to Salthouse, together with Scolt Head Island, is a 'Biosphere Reserve'.[14]

Flora and fauna


Pink-footed geese leaving the grazing marshes at dawn

As many as 50,000 pink-footed geese, 13,000 wigeon and 7,000 brent geese winter at Holkham, making it of international importance for these species.[5] Up to 400 white-fronted geese and a few tundra bean geese may join the wildfowl flocks, and the odd peregrine falcon, short-eared owl, merlin, marsh harrier or hen harrier may hunt over the fields.[15] The shingle banks and foreshore hold wintering flocks of shore larks, snow buntings and twite,[7] and waders like knots, curlews, dunlins and grey plover probe for invertebrates in the mud flats.[5]

Spring migration is relatively quiet, although sightings of ring ouzel and firecrest are possible amongst the more common arrivals. Breeding birds include lapwings, snipe, pied avocets, common redshanks and marsh harriers on the grazing marshes, ringed plovers and little terns on the beach, and black-headed, herring and lesser black-backed gulls on the salt marsh. The small grey heron colony has been joined by little egrets,[15] and, from 2010, by spoonbills.[16] The pines may occasionally have nesting siskins or common crossbills, and parrot crossbills bred in 1984 and 1985.[15]

Holkham's north-facing coastal location can attract large numbers of migrating birds in autumn if the weather conditions are right,[17][18] especially with a north to north-east wind.[15] The common species may be accompanied by a wryneck, red-backed shrike or greenish warbler in August, with goldcrests, thrush (bird)|thrushes and finches later in the season, and perhaps red-breasted flycatchers and yellow-browed warblers. Vagrant rarities such as Pallas's, Radde's or dusky warblers may occur;[15][19] a red-breasted nuthatch in 1989 was the first, and, as of 2012, the only individual of its species to be recorded in the UK.[20]

Other animals and plants

Brown hares and otters are found all along the north Norfolk coast, but red squirrels disappeared from the Holkham pines by 1981.[7] The rare natterjack toad breeds at Holkham,[5] one of only two sites along this coast,[7] although the common frog, common toad and common lizard are widespread in appropriate habitats.[21]

The pines and salt marsh stabilising the dunes

The green hairstreak, purple hairstreak, comma, hummingbird hawk-moth, broad-bordered bee hawk-moth and ghost moth are sometimes seen in the woods with the common butterfly and moth species, and a clouded yellow or Camberwell beauty may also occur in some years.[22] Grayling, small heath and common blue butterflies can be found in the dunes,[23] where there is also a large antlion colony, making Holkham one of only two locations for this predatory insect in the United Kingdom.[24] Dragonflies include the migrant hawker, southern hawker and ruddy darter.[22]

On exposed parts of the coast, the muds and sands are scoured by the tides, and have no vegetation except possibly algae or eelgrass, but where the shoreline is more protected, internationally important salt marshes can form, with several uncommon species. The salt marsh contains glassworts and annual seablite in the most exposed regions,[5] with a succession of plants following on as the marsh becomes more established: first sea aster, then mainly sea lavender, with sea purslane in the creeks and smaller areas of sea plantain and other common marsh plants.[7] Scrubby sea-blite and matted sea lavender are characteristic plants of the drier upper salt marsh here, although they are uncommon in Britain away from the Norfolk coast.[5]

Grasses such as sea couch grass and sea poa grass are important in the driest areas of the marshes, and on the coastal dunes, where marram grass, sand couch-grass, lyme-grass and red fescue help to bind the sand. Sea holly and sand sedge are other specialists of this arid habitat, and petalwort is a nationally rare bryophyte found on damper dunes.[25] Bird's-foot trefoil, pyramidal orchid,[7] bee orchid, lesser centaury and carline thistle flower on the more stable dunes,[23] where the rare Jersey cudweed and grey hair-grass are also found.[7] The narrow three-mile belt of pines shelters creeping lady's tresses and yellow bird's nest orchids.[5][15]


Riders on the beach

A 2005 survey at Holkham and five other North Norfolk coastal sites found that 39 per cent of visitors gave birdwatching as the main purpose of their visit. The 7.7 million day visitors and 5.5 million who made overnight stays in the area in 1999 are estimated to have spent £122 million, and created the equivalent of 2,325 full-time jobs. Holkham NNR is one of three sites within the SSSI that attract 100,000 or more visitors annually, the others being Titchwell Marsh and Cley Marshes.[14]

The Little Tern colony at Holkham, holding seven per cent of the British population, is cordoned off in the breeding season, with signs explaining why people are excluded from the area. The dune vegetation can be damaged by too many people walking over it, leading to blowout, the rapid wind erosion of the sand. Boardwalks and steps enable visitors to reach the beach on foot without harming the dunes,[5] and horse riders are asked to stay on the beach and keep off the dunes.[26][27][28]

Outside links


  1. Natural England (2009) pp. 17–19.
  2. 2.0 2.1 Allen & Pye (1992) p. 148.
  3. "Exploring the National Nature Reserve". Holkham Estate. http://www.holkham.co.uk/naturereserve/explore.html.  Retrieved 3 September 2012.
  4. "Route 1". National Cycle Routes. Sustrans. http://www.sustrans.org.uk/what-we-do/national-cycle-network/route-numbering-system/route-1.  Retrieved 3 September 2012.
  5. 5.00 5.01 5.02 5.03 5.04 5.05 5.06 5.07 5.08 5.09 5.10 Natural England (2009) pp. 7–15.
  6. "Reaching Holkham". Holkham Estate. http://www.holkham.co.uk/naturereserve/reaching.html.  Retrieved 3 September 2012.
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 7.3 7.4 7.5 7.6 7.7 "North Norfolk Coast". SSSI citations. Natural England. http://www.english-nature.org.uk/citation/citation_photo/1001342.pdf.  Retrieved 8 November 2011.
  8. Vickery, J A; Sutherland, W J; O'Brien, M; Watkinson, A R; Yallop A (1997). "Managing coastal grazing marshes for breeding waders and overwintering geese: Is there a conflict?". Biological Conservation 79 (1): 23–24. doi:10.1016/S0006-3207(96)00111-5. 
  9. Harold, Ron (1994). "Holkham grazing marshes N.N.R". Norfolk & Norwich Naturalists Society Transactions 30 (2 Supplement: Norfolk Bird & Mammal Report 1993): 123–130. 
  10. 10.0 10.1 "Welcome to Holkham". Holkham Estate. http://www.holkham.co.uk/naturereserve/index.html.  Retrieved 2 September 2012.
  11. National Heritage List 1018014: Iron Age fort northeast of Dale Hole Cottage
  12. "History". Visitor information. Holkham Estate. http://www.holkham.co.uk/html/history.html.  Retrieved 2 September 2012.
  13. Oronsaye, W I. "Wind action and sand movement near Holkham Bay, North Norfolk Coast, England". Environmental Geology and Water Sciences 15 (2): 77–82. doi:10.1007/bf01705094. 
  14. 14.0 14.1 Liley (2008) pp. 4–6.
  15. 15.0 15.1 15.2 15.3 15.4 15.5 Harrup & Redman (2010) pp. 242–245
  16. "Breeding spoonbills return to Holkham". Natural England. http://www.naturalengland.org.uk/about_us/news/2011/120911.aspx.  Retrieved 13 August 2012.
  17. Elkins (1988) pp. 136–137.
  18. Newton (2010) pp. 97–98.
  19. Newton (2010) p. 50.
  20. Aley, Jean; Aley, Roy (1995). "Red-breasted Nuthatch in Norfolk: new to Britain and Ireland". British Birds 88 (3): 150–153. http://www.britishbirds.co.uk/search?model=pdf&id=7786. 
  21. Norfolk Wildlife Trust (2005) pp. 12–15.
  22. 22.0 22.1 "Pinewoods and scrub". Holkham National Nature Reserve. Holkham Estate. http://www.holkham.co.uk/naturereserve/pinewoodsandscrub.html.  Retrieved 21 August 2012.
  23. 23.0 23.1 "Dunes". Holkham National Nature Reserve. Holkham Estate. http://www.holkham.co.uk/naturereserve/dunes.html.  Retrieved 18 August 2012.
  24. "Thriving colonies of antlions discovered in Norfolk nature reserve". News. Natural England. 17 October 2011. http://www.naturalengland.org.uk/about_us/news/2011/171011.aspx.  Retrieved 7 September 2012.
  25. "Coastal Sand Dunes – Habitat Action Plan". Norfolk Biodiversity Partnership. Archived from the original on 19 September 2012. http://www.webcitation.org/6AlcFybqY.  Retrieved 22 August 2012.
  26. "Holkham Bay – Norfolk". Naturist UK Fact File. http://nuff.org.uk/east-of-england/134-holkham-bay-norfolk.  Retrieved 5 September 2012.
  27. "Holkham Beach in Norfolk". Visit England. http://www.visitengland.com/ee/idea/Coast/Holkham-Beach.htm.  Retrieved 5 September 2012.
  28. "Horse riders". Natural England. http://www.naturalengland.org/Images/HorseridingHolkham_tcm6-19818.pdf.  Retrieved 7 September 2012.

Cited texts