Updated 18/4/2021

Norfolk beaches are amazing places to walk our four-legged friends and some birds choose these beaches to raise their family. It is therefore important that we all come together to do our bit to ensure these birds are given the space to do this.

What birds are you talking about?

Ringed plovers and oystercatchers.  

    

Ringed plover (top), Oystercatcher (bottom)

Did you know birds’ nest on the ground?

In fact, more than half of the UK’s breeding birds nest on the ground; the ringed plover and the oystercatcher are two such birds.

These two species make a shallow scrape in the sand to lay their eggs in. These eggs have evolved to blend in with the sand and shingle, making them very difficult to spot as you walk along the beach. This means they can easily be trampled.

Did you know that once they hatch the chicks will run all over the beach?

Ringed plover and oystercatcher chicks are what we call precocial. This means that as soon as the chicks hatch, they leave the nest and go in search of their own food and so they will often run all across the beach. 

When they feel under threat for example from predators, people and dogs they will flatten themselves on the sand to try and blend it. However this makes them prone to being squashed by us. 

These birds have always been here, so what is the problem?

In 1984, 519 pairs of ringed plovers were recorded breeding in Norfolk, in 2018 there were just 113 pairs. That is a 79% decline in only 35 years.

The Snettisham area is one of the most important areas in Norfolk with 15% of the Norfolk population.

Oystercatchers are also suffering a similar decline.

Although the birds have always been here, they are disappearing in front of our eyes. If we don’t all help, then these delightful birds could be lost from Norfolk forever.

Why are they declining?

The reasons for their decline are complex

  1. Habitat Changes: ringed plovers and oystercatchers need sandy – shingle beaches to nest on, at Snettisham the shingle is vegetating up in some areas making it less suitable for nesting which means the birds are looking for suitable habitat on other areas of the beach. The vegetated shingle is a really important habitat in it is own right hosting rare plants so it isn't as simple as removing vegetation or adding shingle over the top. 
  2. Sea level rise is leading to even higher tides causing eggs to being washed away and some chicks can drown.
  3. Increase in visitor numbers: Visitor numbers have risen dramatically along the Norfolk Coast, especially since COVID19 with the rise in the staycation. As a result, our beaches are becoming more crowded by people and so there is less space for ringed plovers to nest.

Why can't they just go somewhere else?

If you look around you will notice that different birds can be found in different parts of the countryside as they have evolved and adapted to find their own niche.

Ringed plovers have adapted to nest on sandy- shingle beaches. They choose to nest at the top of the beaches where the tides cannot wash their nest away. They will run around the beach and out onto the mud to feed on insects and small invertebrates. If they can't access beaches such as those found at Snettisham then they lose their home and can no longer raise their family which will lead to them becoming extinct.

As sea level rises and the habitat on beaches changes conservation organisations are working hard to try and create new areas of habitat for ringed plovers to move to but this is not easy when a bird only knows to nest on the beach at Snettisham, for example. 

What is the RSPB doing?

  1. Beach Cordons

You will see rope and post cordons along the beach which prevent nests from being trampled and provide a safe space for these birds to use.  

When you are visiting this summer please keep your distance as there will be a parent bird sitting on their eggs who will quickly leave as you approach. They perceive us humans as a threat.

 

  1. Signage

When you visit you will see signs letting you know where to walk, fly a kite or let your dog off the lead, for example, without causing disturbance.

 The signage will be removed at the end of August when they are no longer needed.

 

  1. Beach Rangers

Look out for our team of friendly beach rangers who will be out and about this summer on Snettisham beach protecting these birds from disturbance.

What authority does the RSPB have?

The RSPB is working in partnership with the Ken Hill Estate, Kings Lynn and West Norfolk Borough Council and Snettisham Sailing Club to safeguard the ringed plovers and oystercatchers whilst still allowing visitors to enjoy the beach.

What is the law?

All birds, their nests and eggs are protected by law and it is thus an offence to: 

  • Intentionally kill, injure or take any wild bird.
  • Intentionally take, damage or destroy the nest of any wild bird while it is in use or being built.
  • Intentionally take or destroy the egg of any wild bird. 

How can I help?

With your help we can ensure these beach nesting birds rear their next generation. These birds need space to breed undisturbed so a few simple changes to our behaviour could make all the difference:

  1. Pay attention to the signage located along the coast signalling beach nesting birds are present.
  2. Keep away from the cordons on the beach; they are there to protect beach nesting birds from being trampled.
  3. Walk along the water’s edge or, even better, on the coastal path where it exists.
  4. Beach nesting birds use camouflage to keep eggs and chicks safe – watch where you place your feet!
  5. Be aware of the birds’ activity – do they appear agitated? If yes, carefully move away, retracing your footsteps to avoid trampling a nest.
  6. Please keep dogs on leads and under close control. Dogs are very frightening to ringed plovers and a bird will leave its nest if it sees a dog approaching.
  7. Please don’t leave or bury rubbish or food scraps on beaches as this may attract predators, or birds can become tangled up in rubbish.

Why are you targeting dog walkers specifically?

The RSPB and Ken Hill Estate welcomes dogs, but, from 1st April – 31st August we are asking you to keep your dogs on a lead when visiting Snettisham Beach.

Extensive research has proven that dogs off leads disturb ground nesting birds such as ringed plovers 100% of the time.

Research has also demonstrated that an off lead dog can cover 10 times more ground than a dog on a lead. 

Dogs often chase and can even kill these birds. Once such incident was recorded at RSPB Titchwell in 2020 where a dog chased a ringed plover chick that was only just learning to fly and killed it. 

When birds are disturbed frequently their stress levels rise, which can lead to them abandoning their eggs.

Leaving their eggs unattended can cause the embryo to die due to changing temperatures and eggs are more likely to be predated by other species.

By keeping dogs on leads the chance of nesting success doubles.

Where can I walk my dog off a lead?

Between 1st April and 31st August, you can walk your dog off a lead at Heacham North Beach and at Old Hunstanton.

Where can I walk my dog on a lead?

Between 1st April and 31st August, you can still walk your dog on a lead from Heacham South beach to the Snettisham Beach Car Park and from here south, until you reach the concrete sea defences in front of the chalets.

If you have any further enquiries please drop us an email: titchwell@rspb.org.uk

We thank you for your support in helping these charismatic birds raise their families free from harm.

Anonymous