Farmland flooded to save a disappearing coastline

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The Independent Online

Britain's battle against global warming has taken a step forward with the first concerted attempt to replace coastline being lost to sea-level rise.

Britain's battle against global warming has taken a step forward with the first concerted attempt to replace coastline being lost to sea-level rise.

Five conservation groups are combining to spend more than £3m on buying a large farm and letting the sea flood parts of it. The project to purchase and manage Abbotts Hall farm on the Essex coast, near Colchester, will try to recreate marine habitats such as salt marsh, which are being lost to ever-higher tides. Sixty per cent of the Essex salt marshes have disappeared in 50 years as waters have risen by about eight inches.

More than 200 acres of the farm's 700 acres will be deliberately inundated by breaching the sea wall that has kept out the waves for 400 years.

More than a square mile of salt marshes will be created to support a wide range of birds, animals, plants and insects. The technique, known as "managed retreat", offers the only hope for coastal wildlife faced with sea-level rise. It preserves the vital inter-tidal zone - the area between high and low water marks - which contains worms, molluscs and other invertebrates on which wading birds and other wildlife feed. If more sea walls are built to hold back the waters the inter-tidal zone will disappear.

The project is being led by the Essex Wildlife Trust and is being backed by a partnership of English Nature, the Environment Agency, the World Wide Fund for Nature and the Heritage Lottery Fund. They paid £2.5m for Abbots Hall farm and will spend £750,000 on engineering works for the re-creation of the habitat.

Sea-level rise is a worldwide consequence of global warming as the warmer waters of the oceans expand in volume, and it is popularly perceived as a phenomenon likely to occur some time in the future. But in south-east England it is already happening, helped by land sinking at the same time as the sea is rising. The combined rate is now thought to be an inch every eight years.

John Hall, the Essex Wildlife Trust director, said: "Farmers might see this as the loss of valuable agricultural land and think it was nonsense, but we see it as the loss of land that has no wildlife value, to be replaced with an area whose wildlife value will be massive."

Other parts will be managed as a working farm run on environmental principles. Much of the land will be restored for conservation: hedgerows will be repaired and replaced, woodlands will be planted and ponds will be dug.

The project is of national and European significance because it will form the central piece in a conservation jigsaw that will link together more than 3,000 acres of wildlife-rich land and more than 15 miles of the Essex coast.

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