The Broads have long been recognised as a unique landscape, treasured for their rich blend of ecological, recreational and commercial benefits. In 1976, “Broadland” was amongst the earliest sites to be designated as a Wetland of International Importance under the Ramsar Convention. Extended to a total 4,623ha in 1994, the Broads are Britain’s third largest inland waterway.
The biodiversity of Broadland is truly stunning, with a mosaic of wetland habitats including rivers and dykes, reedbeds, carr woodland, grazing marsh, and fen meadow, and more than 60 lakes and flooded medieval peat diggings known as broads. Outstanding assemblages of rare plants and invertebrates occur here. Hickling Broad is famous for its rare Stoneworts, Water soldier, and other aquatic plants. Amongst a rich fauna are the nationally rare Norfolk hawker dragonfly, and the Fen raft spider. This is the last stronghold for the Swallowtail and its foodplant Milk-parsley as well as home to several nationally rare breeding birds, including the Bittern and Marsh Harrier. Many species of waterbirds overwinter in Broadland, including internationally important numbers of Bewick's swan, widgeon and other ducks, and several species of geese.
The Broads Authority, in the 2011 Broads Biodiversity Audit carried out by the University of East Anglia, recorded more than 11,000 (17%) of Britain’s 65,000-70,000 species, making this the most biodiverse of any designated national park, despite also being the smallest, at 303 sq. km.
Worryingly though, over 1,500 (14%) of these species are under threat and recognised as priority species for conservation action. This is a quarter of all the UK’s priority species, showing just how important the Broads are for nature conservation and recovery.
Fully freshwater conditions are an essential requirement for 63% of them and salt incursion, which has increased in recent years, is a big issue. The Swallowtail is particularly at risk from the impact of climate change, including sea-level rise, and is at historically low population levels in its remaining 16 breeding sites. Many species of conservation concern are poorly understood, such as the Reed beetles, several species of which are feared to be extinct in the marshes of the River Ant. Many other Broads species have not been seen in the past 35 years, and there is much research waiting to be done by naturalists.
The focus today is on nature recovery. The government’s 2023 Environmental Improvement Plan aims to identify hot spots and characterise connecting corridors and flyways. In Broadland, the rivers and broads themselves are the arteries and veins that carry the lifeblood of the Broadland fauna and flora – freshwater – around the system. But these waters, known in Broadland as “the navigation” have become something of a battleground.
The Broads were designated as the equivalent of a national park in 1988, with added 2009 legislation charging the Broads Authority to conserve wildlife, provide access for people to enjoy, and maintain the navigation for the largely recreational boating community. More than 60% of the Broads are below sea-level, requiring expensive maintenance that leapt in cost during the recent inflation hikes. With the twin challenges of a biodiversity crisis and climate-induced impacts such as floods and rising water levels now very much in evidence, the costs of maintaining the Broads have soared.
Tolls raised from the 12,500 boaters in Broadland cover the costs of the navigation and its basic infrastructure of moorings, dredging and channels free of water plants, but it is insufficient to cover the full cost of maintaining the additional ecological services arising from the wetland landscape, such as flood control and a rich biodiversity. There are public concerns that tolls are partly being used to pay for these national park benefits. While such claims are arguable, they are fuelled by the fact that tolls have risen steeply while the Defra national park grant has remained frozen for five years, albeit with generous additional capital grants for specialist wetland equipment.
We need to recognise these waterways for both their public and private benefits. The cost of managing them should be part of the overall budget for managing the designated national park, a cost to which boat owners should contribute fairly for the recreation they enjoy. But the public purse should also contribute proportionately, recognising that it is not only boat owners who enjoy the waterways but walkers, anglers, naturalists and many others outside the park too. Behind the scenes, this concept is widely accepted, and hybrid navigation/conservation projects have been the norm at the Broads Authority for some time, albeit often externally funded.
As 2024 unfolds, the Broads Authority is consulting with the members of the Broads Biodiversity Partnership on a review of the Broads Biodiversity Strategy, which is likely to be renamed the Broads Nature Recovery Strategy. To achieve the many targets for biodiversity improvements, finance for the Broads needs to be diversified and shared fairly between all stakeholders. It’s time the government funded not only the Broads properly, but all the other national parks as well, recognising them for what they are: an irreplaceable public and private benefit.
As we consider the future of the Norfolk and Suffolk Broads, the role of the Broads Society becomes even more significant. Their ongoing efforts in conservation, advocacy, and community engagement are essential for maintaining the beauty and vitality of the Broads. Joining the Society is not just a way to support these 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.