A return to the old ways

Conservation experts are to reverse five centuries of British history and deliberately allow rising sea levels to flood a huge stretch of reclaimed Essex coastline. In the most ambitious and expensive project of its type, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) intends to puncture sea defences around Wallasea island, near Southend in southern England, and turn 728ha of farmland into a mosaic of salt marsh, creeks and mudflats — making mainland Britain just a little bit smaller.

Generations of farmers have worked the land there for 500 years, since Dutch settlers first built a wall around the remote strip of coast once claimed by King Canute; the RSPB wants to transform the area into a wildlife reserve. As the sea returns, so should otters, wild plants, fish and birds, some of which have not nested in Britain for more than 400 years.

Graham Wynne, RSPB chief execu­tive, said: “Wallasea will become a coastal wetland full of wildlife in a unique landscape. We will be restoring habitats that were lost more than 400 years ago and preparing the land for sea level rise.”

The £12million scheme is the largest of its type in Europe. It will see a series of low-lying walls built across the flat arable farmland, followed by a gradual reintroduction of limited amounts of sea water.

Mark Dixon, project manager, said: “We will have marshes, islands, lagoons and creeks, little more than 50cm deep at high tide. Wallasea is one island now but was once five separate pieces of land. We will restore these ancient divisions and each new island will have its own tidal control.” The full force of the uncontrolled high tide would wash much of the restored landscape away, because the land inside the existing sea wall has been gradually lowered since it was reclaimed.

The RSPB has secured an option to buy the land and start the restoration in two years’ time, and is raising funds. It will consult the local community and adapt the scheme to meet residents’ concerns. Wetland restoration schemes can be controversial; local opposition has forced at least one scheme in Essex to be scrapped. The RSPB has carried out a feasibility study and is planning a £500 000 project to look at engineering and design.

The Wallasea project borders a similar, smaller scale salt marsh restoration project carried out by Defra, the environment department, last year and similar projects are under way in Germany, the United States, Denmark and The Netherlands.

Of 30 000ha of intertidal salt marsh that surrounded the Essex coast 400 years ago, only 2 500ha remain and 100ha more are destroyed across England each year. This rate of loss is expected to accelerate with climate change as rising sea levels and more severe storms help them to erode. In turn, the loss of such salt marshes could make Britain more vulnerable to the effects of global warming, because they buffer the force of the tides.

Dixon said: “Many birds will starve to death if we don’t restore Wallasea. Fish are under incredible pressure too, not just because of overfishing but also because of the loss of their salt marsh nurseries.

“We want to recreate a lost landscape. More people in this country know about the destruction of the rainforests than about the destruction of their own coastal heritage.”

The RSPB hopes the wetland will attract spoonbills, which have not nested in Britain since the 1600s, Kentish plovers, absent for 50 years, and black-winged stilts, which have only bred in Britain three times. — Â

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