When discussing conservation in the Broads, the first thing to remember is that this is not a natural environment. If it was, we could leave it alone, and it would thrive in its own equilibrium. But because it is largely man-made and has been maintained for human purposes for hundreds of years, if it were left to its own devices the broads and rivers would silt up, woodland would encroach, and much of the area would revert to swamp. Clearly, this is not what is needed. The balance we are looking for is a land use strategy that has room for agriculture and recreation as well as conserving a diversity of habitats.
The 303 sq km area designated as the Broads National Park is tightly drawn around the floodplains and lower reaches of the Rivers Bure, Yare, Waveney and their tributaries, the Thurne, Ant and Chet. Nearly all of it is at risk of flooding, a risk that is growing as climate warming and sea-level rise take hold. Managed by the Broads Authority, just a quarter of the park falls under the Ramsar Convention as a Wetland Habitat of International Importance for its biodiversity. The remaining three-quarters, and indeed most of the 320,000 sq km catchment beyond, is grazing marsh and arable farmland where careful land management is necessary to maintain the biodiversity-rich ecosystems in the lower reaches, and the services from biodiversity to carbon capture and recreation that the park provides. Experience shows that conservation initiatives led by governmental and non-governmental bodies generally require government-funded Environmental Land Management Schemes (ELMS) in the surrounding countryside to sustain them as an integral part of the Norfolk landscape.
It follows that conservation has to be considered across the whole landscape, which is why agricultural regeneration projects have become more popular amongst farmers. Schemes like Farming in Protected Landscapes (FiPL) are helping to finance low-impact land management that builds soil organic matter, increases the quality of under-utilised areas, and encourages wildlife back to the landscape through corridors of hedges, streams and woodland patches.
A second concept to bear in mind is that while designated conservation areas, such as National Nature Reserves, Sites of Special Scientific Interest, Specially Protected Areas and County Wildlife Sites are scattered across the Broads and the County, often seemingly isolated from each other, they are in fact linked by waterways, geological features and the atmosphere. Innovative conservation projects need to tackle distal problems, not just proximal ones. For example, there is little point in spending tens of thousands on conserving the Swallowtail butterfly if saltwater is allowed to encroach upriver from the sea to destroy its foodplant, Milk-parsley. This is why schemes to prevent and contain salination events arising from tidal surges are much needed.
Similarly, if we do nothing to control carbon dioxide emissions, atmospheric warming by just 2 degrees Celsius will make the Broads uninhabitable for Bewick’s and Whooper swans, Pink-footed and Red-breasted geese, Water vole, Soprano pipistrelle bat, Natterjack toad, Adder, Red-eyed damselfly and purple hairstreak butterfly amongst many hundreds of other species. This is why carbon sequestration projects are so important, including the Broads Authority’s Creating a New Approach to Peatland Ecosystems (CANAPE) project. Drained peatlands are responsible for 5% of global CO2 emissions but keeping them wet and applying new forms of agriculture, called paludiculture, helps to redress the problem. At Horsey, paludiculture trials using Reedmace are delivering various innovative products, including Fibreboard's construction panels. CANAPE also created a whole new reedbed from dredging's at Chara Bay in Hickling Broad, and useful charcoal from wood waste.
At Hoveton Great Broad, which sits within the Bure Marshes National Nature Reserve, a large area of water degraded by unsustainable agriculture and treated sewage, saw Natural England use a combination of techniques to restore it to its former character. Waste from dredging to 1.5m was stored in three massive geotextile rolls that were then used to create a new wet fen habitat that is already being colonised by rare fenland wildlife.
Waterway connections to the less-polluted River Bure were cleared to allow the river to flow through and cleanse the polluted area. After a few years the water has cleared, allowing water plants to grow once more and the whole ecosystem to diversify. The project, innovative and controversial in its approach, adapted its strategy by abandoning the fish exclusion biomanipulation aspect due to the risk of displacing the Bream population from its spawning grounds. It provided valuable lessons for future aspects of Broads restoration. Today, it is a valuable site for visitors, with walkways that reach into the reserve, allowing everyone to enjoy the ever-increasing wildlife spectacle.
The Broads is not only one of Britain’s most important wetlands, it is also an experimental area where new technologies for wetland conservation and environmental management can help us manage these invaluable habitats sustainably for future generations.
As we consider the future of the Broads, the role of the Broads Society becomes ever more significant. Its efforts in conservation, advocacy, and community engagement are essential. Joining the Society is not just a way to support their efforts; it's an opportunity to be part of a community that is deeply committed to the stewardship of one of the UK's most precious natural landscapes. Whether you are a local resident, a frequent visitor, or someone who holds the Broads dear, becoming a member of the Broads Society is a meaningful way to contribute to the preservation and enhancement of this unique area.