Protecting wildlife from climate change and sea level rise - RSPB

Protecting wildlife from climate change and sea level rise - RSPB

Coast in Crisis

Protecting wildlife from climate

change and sea level rise

Wildlife under threat...

• saltmarshes and mudflats

• shingle and sand dunes

• freshwater wetlands

Urgent action needed...

• creation of new intertidal habitats

• recognising the value of coastal habitats

• hydrodynamic studies to inform action

• supportive land use planning policies

Coast in Crisis

Coasts are places of dynamic change – much of the landscape and ecological

value of the coast has been formed by the sea. However the coast of Eastern

England is no longer a pristine wilderness. Natural change is constrained by

man-made development resulting in habitats being squeezed by fixed flood

defences, rising sea levels and increasing ‘storminess’ due to climate change.

Consequently coastal habitats are vanishing at a frightening rate, with drastic

implications for the wildlife that depends on them.

C Knights (RSPB Images)

There is an urgent need to create new intertidal habitats as part of a sustainable

coastal defence strategy for Eastern England which will benefit biodiversity,

flood defence, fisheries and people.

Action is needed to:

Give proper recognition of the value of coastal habitats

Provide effective mechanisms to create intertidal habitats

Adopt supportive land use planning policies

Show what intertidal habitat creation means in practice

Undertake hydrodynamic studies to inform action

The creation of intertidal habitats takes a long time from planning to reality – at least

six years in the case of Freiston Shore on the Wash. The present amount and rate of

habitat creation is nowhere near fast enough to keep pace with ongoing losses.

Fewer than 100 ha of new habitat have been created in the past 10 years while more

than 10 times this figure has been lost to coastal squeeze.

Saltmarshes, like these at

Gibralter Point, mudflats and

shingle work as natural sea

defences. Healthy coastal

wetlands also lock up and absorb

toxic pollutants, reducing the risk

to the wider environment.



Value of coastal habitats for wildlife


he coastline of Eastern England

supports about a quarter of the

UK’s coastal habitats. These

habitats are hugely important for

maintaining global biodiversity – the

variety of life. They support more than

a million wildfowl and wading birds

and are home to rare and specialised

plants and animals. Consequently

many areas have been recognised as

internationally important under EU


Special Protection

Areas for birds

Humber Flats,

Marshes and Coast


Gibraltar Point

The Wash

King's Lynn




Great potential for

intertidal habitat



Breydon Water


– Walberswick

Bury St Edmunds



Stour and

Orwell Estuary


Mid-Essex Coast

Benfleet and

Southend Marshes

Table 1 Coastal Habitats in Eastern England (North Lincs – Thames) 1

Freshwater habitats at

risk from rising seas


– Havergate

Deben Estuary

Freshwater habitats at

risk from rising seas

Habitat creation needed

to sustain estuaries

Hamford Water

Great Yarmouth

North Denes

Benacre to

Easton Bavents

A quarter of the saltmarsh

lost in 25 years. Great potential for

intertidal habitat creation

Habitat Current area % project loss by % of regional

in hectares 2050 (in hectares) resource

Saltmarsh 12,500 4,331 31

Mudflat and sandflat 52,000 3,689 7

Shingle 1,488 44 3

Coastal lagoon 161 60 37

Sand dune 1,331 120 9

Value of coastal habitats for people

A Hay (RSPB Images)

New coastal habitats will benefit

wildlife, people, local economies

and flood defence.

f the coast of Eastern England was

valuable for only biodiversity, this

immense concentration of wildlife

would be enough to justify its

conservation. However, wildlife is just

one part of its overall value.


The east coast has inspired artists

and writers for centuries. People

are drawn by its natural beauty, its

wildness, its freedom, and its

special wildlife. The shoreline is

widely used by walkers and

birdwatchers while other areas are

havens for sailing. Visitors

contribute to the local economies

and coastal communities through

their spending. For example, visitor

spending linked to Cley and

Titchwell nature reserves totals £4.3

million/year supporting the

equivalent of 91 jobs 2 .

Coastal ecosystems are among the

most productive on the planet – in

some cases even more so than

tropical rainforests. They provide a

vital source of food and shelter for

commercially exploited fish and

shellfish stocks.

Saltmarshes, mudflats and shingle

work as natural sea defences 3 . They

absorb and dissipate the force of the

sea and reduce the risk to people and

development. Their economic value

for flood and coastal defence alone

is huge.

Coastal wetlands play a critical role in

maintaining water quality – they lock

up and process pesticides, nutrients

and other pollutants that would

otherwise adversely affect the

environment 4,5 .

One study to assess the value of the

world’s ecosystems found estuaries to

be the most valuable of all habitats

with an economic value of £14,000 per

hectare each year 6 – giving the coastal

habitats of Eastern England an annual

value of over £900 million. If we had to

pay for all these services we would

probably give coastal habitat

conservation much greater weight.

Environment Agency

Coastal squeeze

Changes in saltmarsh on Hamford Water, Essex, 1973–98

New saltmarsh

Eroded saltmarsh

The squeeze on coastal habitats in areas such as Hamford Water, partly

due to sea level rise and partly due to land claim and unmoving sea

defences, poses a major threat to the coastal zone.


astern England is sinking and

the high-tide mark is moving

progressively landwards. The

most recent predictions are that relative

sea level rise in Eastern England will be

between 21 and 76 cm by the 2050s 7 .

Normally, as sea level rises, the coastal

habitats would move inland. However,

they cannot do so because man-made

sea walls prevent this. Unable to move,

these ecologically and economically

important habitats are being

increasingly squeezed between fixed

sea walls and rising seas. Recent

research 8 shows that a quarter (a

staggering 1000 hectares) of Essex

saltmarsh has been lost in the last 25

years. Such losses threaten coastal

defence, water quality, fisheries,

treasured landscapes as well as

valuable ecosystems and wildlife

including internationally important

waterfowl populations.

The need to restore intertidal habitats


he UK has obligations under the

EU Habitats Directive to ‘take

appropriate steps to avoid

deterioration’ of such habitats. This is

reinforced by the UK Biodiversity

Action Plan, which has established a

target of no net loss of intertidal

habitats. In Eastern England, where

coastal squeeze is dominant, this can

only be achieved by creating new

intertidal habitats. Given the rate of

habitat loss through coastal squeeze

and the likely acceleration of losses

there is an urgent need to create new

intertidal habitats now.

J Sharpe (RSPB Images)

It is sometimes claimed that there is

nowhere for these restored habitats to

go but a recent study identified 6,664

ha of land on the coast of Eastern

England where intertidal habitat

creation may be a realistic option 9 . The

greatest potential is on the Wash (48%)

and the Essex coast (33%).

In spite of great efforts, schemes, such as Orplands on the Blackwater

Estuary, which restore intertidal habitats have made a slow start. Fewer

than 100 hectares were created in the last 10 years and none before that.

Several important initiatives have already begun:

Biodiversity Action Plans have established clear targets for the conservation of important coastal habitats.

English Nature and the Environment Agency (EA), with the support of other Government Departments and nongovernmental

organisations, are leading the development of Coastal Habitat Management Plans to reconcile the

requirements of the Habitats Directive and the need for coastal defence in naturally dynamic coastal areas.

The Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (MAFF), which oversees national flood defence policy, has established

a target of ‘no net loss’ of habitats covered by Biodiversity Action Plans. MAFF also gives special consideration to the

funding of defence schemes to protect internationally important sites where it is judged sustainable to do so.

But more needs to be done to allow the creation of new coastal habitat in advance of expected losses.

A sustainable coast defence strategy for Eastern England


he Environment Agency and its

Flood Defence Committees,

together with coastal District

Councils, are well placed to develop a

sustainable coast defence strategy for

Eastern England. Coast defence

decisions have a profound effect upon

coastal wildlife. One of the key tests of

a sustainable strategy will be whether it

takes full account of the wildlife

impacts of coastal squeeze.

The objectives of a sustainable coast

defence strategy should include:

no net loss of existing coastal

habitats and

creation of new wildlife habitats on

the coast, and inland, to make good

past losses.

Anything less is not sustainable. All the

indications are that such a strategy

would be economically as well as

environmentally efficient 10 . Indeed

Government has agreed that ‘the

response to sea level rise should not be

the construction of ever higher

defences that commit future

generations to unsustainable levels of

investment’ 11 .

Shoreline Management Plans (SMPs)

and Coastal Habitat Management Plans

should determine the amount of habitat

to be created in each area and give an

indication of where these habitats


aken together the Essex coast and the Wash can

deliver the new mudflats and saltmarsh needed to

sustain wildlife in Eastern England. However, it may

be necessary to make good losses from one area in another.

Where there are towns and villages, retreat of sea defences

will be socially unacceptable and unrealistically expensive.

In consequence there will be losses of valuable intertidal

habitats on the developed coast. To offset these inevitable

losses, the intertidal zone needs to be increased where

realignment is possible.

should be located. Currently SMPs

mainly identify existing areas of

valuable fresh and brackish water

habitats to retreat sea defences 12 .

Where possible new coastal habitats

should not be created on land that is

The Government is clear that internationally important wetlands, such

as the reedbed at Walberswick, should be protected from flooding as

long as that is sustainable, and if not they should be replaced.

Where should intertidal habitats be restored?

already of recognised wildlife value.

MAFF’s guidance is clear –

internationally important wetlands

should be protected from flooding as

long as it is sustainable to do so; and if

it is not they should be replaced.

A Hay (RSPB Images) J Sharpe (RSPB Images)

The best opportunities in the UK lie on intensively managed

farmland of relatively low wildlife value in Eastern England,

much of which was formerly saltmarsh. The aim in these

areas should be a net increase in the intertidal zone through

realignment of sea walls. The Essex Rural Sea Walls

Strategy 13 identifies some 110 km of sea walls where there is

no economic justification for improvement or even

maintenance of the defence. The EA is well placed to take a

regional overview of coastal habitat creation in Eastern


The Essex Rural Sea Walls Strategy identifies some

110 km of frontage where there is no economic

justification for improvement or even maintenance of

the sea defences.

To restore intertidal habitats,

action is needed to:

Give greater recognition to the value of coastal habitats

The flood defence strategy of MAFF/EA/coastal District Councils

should give greater weight in project planning and appraisal to the

multiple benefits that arise from healthy coastal habitats.

Undertake hydrodynamic studies to inform action

There is an urgent need for EA to undertake extensive

hydrodynamic studies to show where it will be beneficial to create

new intertidal habitat.

Provide effective mechanisms to create intertidal habitat

The new Intertidal Habitat component of the Countryside

Stewardship Scheme needs to be effectively targeted and resourced

to promote uptake. In addition, MAFF should grant aid land

purchase in conjunction with flood defence schemes where this will

increase the sustainability of the coastal defence and contribute to

the delivery of UK Biodiversity Action Plan targets.

Show what intertidal habitat creation means in practice

Intertidal habitat creation projects in Essex have highlighted the

importance of demonstration sites to show habitat creation in

practice to local people and organisations. These sites increase the

understanding and acceptability of sustainable coastal

management. Site projects are vital to change attitudes so that

intertidal habitat creation becomes widely accepted.

Adopt supportive land use planning policies

We need supportive land use planning policies in Regional Planning

Guidance, County Structure Plans and Local plans which:

recognise the need for the creation of intertidal habitat;

presume against development in areas at risk of flooding and

suitable for habitat creation.

The greatest potential for habitat restoration lies on the Wash and

Essex coast. Sixty-five hectares of saltmarsh will be created at Freiston

Shore on the Wash.


1 Lee M, 1998. The implications of future

shoreline management on protected habitats

in England and Wales. Report to Environment

Agency by University of Newcastle.

2 RSPB, 2000. Valuing Norfolk’s Coast,

environment – wildlife – tourism – quality of

life. RSPB, Norwich.

3 National Rivers Authority, 1995. A guide to

the understanding and management of

saltmarshes. R&D Note 324. NRA Bristol.

4 Desbonnet, A et al, 1995. Development of

Coastal Vegetative Buffer Programmes.

Coastal Management, Vol 23, pp91-109.

5 Nedwell, DB 1996. Saltmarshes as processors

of nutrients in the estuarine and coastal

system. Symposium on British Saltmarshes,

conference papers. Linnean Society of


6 Costanza, R et al 1997. The value of the

world’s ecosystem services and natural

capital. In: Nature, Vol 387

7 Hulme, M and Jenkins, G, 1999. Climate

Change Scenarios for the United Kingdom.

UKCIP Technical Report No. 1, UEA, Norwich

8 Coastal Geomorphology Partnership, 2000.

Erosion of the saltmarshes in Essex between

1988 and 1998. Report to Environment

Agency by University of Newcastle.

9 Sharpe, J, 1999. An Evaluation of Potential

Sites for Intertidal Habitat Creation in East

Anglia. In: Proceedings of 34th MAFF

Conference of River and Coastal Engineers.

MAFF, London.

10 Bowers, J, 1999. An Economically Efficient

Strategy for Coastal Defence and the

Conservation of the Intertidal Zone. Wildlife

Trusts and WWF, Newark.

11 MAFF, 1998. Government Response to the

Agriculture Committee report on Flood and

Coastal Defence. HMSO.

12 RSPB 1997 Coast in Crisis – world famous

wetlands at risk in Norfolk and Suffolk. RSPB,


13 Environment Agency 1998 Essex Sea Wall

Management Strategy. Environment Agency

and Halcrow, Peterborough

Eastern England Coastal Wildlife Partnership

c/o RSPB East Anglia Regional Office

Stalham House, 65 Thorpe Road, Norwich


Tel: 01603 661662

Written by John Sharpe. Designed and

published by the RSPB with endorsement

from The National Trust, the Wildlife Trusts

of Norfolk, Suffolk, Lincolnshire and Essex

and the WWF-UK.

Front cover: C Knights (RSPB Images)

RSPB Registered charity no 207076 85-752-99-00

A Hay (RSPB Images)

Without action now,

new habitats will not

be created at a fast

enough rate to counter

current and future

losses to the detriment

of wildlife and people.

C H Gomersall (RSPB Images)

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