This blog post originally appeared as an article in the East Anglian Daily Times Environment supplement, sponsored by Anglian Water.
The iconic wildlife of Suffolk's only island
Havergate Island is famed not only as Suffolk’s only island but for its near mythical role in the history of some of the county’s- and the country’s- most iconic wildlife. Not least amongst these is the long-standing emblem of the RSPB, the avocet, which was found breeding in the island’s lagoons in 1947 after an absence of more the 100 years as a breeding bird in the UK. But life in the ever-changing landscape of the Suffolk Coast is far from plain sailing, and the sea can be a harsh mistress, as the winter of 2013 reminded us.
An avocet walking in the mud on Havergate Island. Credit: Chris Gomersall (rspb-images.com)
At just 2 miles long and half a mile wide and located close to the mouth of the River Alde in what is now the protected Alde-Ore Estuary, water has shaped the history of Havergate Island. Originally “saved” from the sea when it was walled and its land reclaimed for agricultural use more the 500 years ago, since that time it has been put to many uses: as arable land, for grazing, and even smuggling.
Havergate Island brimming with birds as evening sets in. Credit: RSPB
A dynamic landscape shaped by environment and man
In the 1930s it was briefly used by a gravel company who set up shingle extraction on the island. Then, during the Second World War, the military took control of the island and allowed the sea to flood over the wall, creating a network of saline lagoons that was instrumental in attracting avocets back to breed in the UK in the same year they returned to what would become the RSPB’s flagship nature reserve at Minsmere, just a short hop up the coast to the north.
The very next year the RSPB bought Havergate Island and it has been managed for wildlife ever since, but the road hasn’t always been a smooth one, and while water has played an essential part in making Havergate the rich wildlife haven it is today, we know that water will also play a role in its ultimate loss to the sea. It’s a natural process of coastal change that is seen all over the world, but rising sea levels and increasingly frequent extreme weather events caused by climate change may be accelerating the rate at which it is happening.
Walkways across the lagoons provide easier access for visitors. Credit: RSPB
Not an easy life for wildlife
In the winter of 2013, the tidal surge that wreaked havoc up and down the East Anglian coast also swept over Havergate Island. Lagoons were flooded with seawater and wildlife-watching hides were lifted off their foundations. In the immediate aftermath of the storm, the impact on the reserve’s wildlife appeared to be huge, but just a year-and-a-half on the plants and animals that call the island home have proved their resilience and given a boost to conservationists confronting the challenge of helping wildlife adapt to the impact of climate change
The dynamic landscape of Havergate Island. Credit: Mike Paige (RSPB)
But nature continues to persist!
While populations of ground-nesting seabirds and waders, like common terns and avocets, escaped relatively unscathed as the storm hit outside the nesting season, the island’s famous population of brown hares fell to a low of just six individuals immediately after the flooding, and some specialist saltmarsh plants, including the uncommon yellow vetch, were feared to have been lost when surveys failed to record them in 2014. But this year the hare population has bounced back to a healthy 18 and yellow vetch has again been found on the island.
Hares jumping for joy about their improving population numbers on Havergate Island. Credit: RSPB
Yellow vetch can once again be found on Havergate Island. Credit: CrabChick (flickr.com)
So, while long term planning for the eventual loss of Havergate Island to the encroaching sea looks to create new wetland habitats inland, the wildlife living on Havergate Island has shown us it won’t be leaving without a fight!
A spoonbill is spotted flying over Havergate Island. Credit: John Evans (RSPB)
Visiting Havergate Island
A visit to Havergate Island is always a memorable experience, offering a chance to get close to some amazing wildlife, from marsh harriers and herring gulls to avocets and hares. This summer the RSPB is inviting visitors to experience the wildlife of Havergate Island:
15 – 17 August, ‘Havergate Adventure’- a leisurely boat trip along the River Ore and guided tour around the island. Booking is via RSPB Minsmere on 01728 648281.
To find out more about these and other events at Havergate Island, visit http://www.rspb.org.uk/discoverandenjoynature/seenature/reserves/guide/h/havergate/events.aspx
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