Farmland left to face the elements: Oliver Gillie reports on a new policy which may change the shape of Britain's coastline

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FOR 200 years, the shingle ridge at Porlock in Somerset has been maintained by man as a defence against the sea. Now it is being left to take its chance against the elements. As part of a new government policy, the shingle ridge will be allowed to erode, exposing some 220 acres of good farmland which lie behind it to incursions from the sea.

The retreat before the sea at Porlock is part of a more general retreat around the coasts of Britain. Current policy is to work as far as possible with nature rather than to protect our shores and food production at all cost, as in the past. And so the old coastal landscape of Britain will change as excess production of food in the European Community makes marginal land less valuable and not worth defending.

Mark Blathwayt, whose family owns the Porlock Manor Estate, the area at Porlock which is most threatened by incursions from the sea, said: 'The shingle ridge has been there for 6,000 years, since the end of the ice age, but it has been destabilised by the building of groynes at the western end around the village of Porlock Weir.

'When the ridge is breached by the sea it heals itself naturally if there is sufficient shingle along the shore. However, the groynes cause the shingle to accumulate around the western end instead of travelling along the ridge and filling any gaps.'

A large breach has developed at the eastern end of the ridge where the river Horner has flooded and forced an exit to the sea. This allows the sea to flood the fields behind when the tide is high, but it also has consequences for the rest of the ridge, Mr Blathwayt believes. The shingle which is thrown out by the river is carried off to the east and so removes support, destabilising the ridge to the west.

Most of the shingle ends up at the eastern end of Porlock Bay on Bossington Beach, which is owned by the National Trust. This shingle could be used to reinforce weak areas of the ridge and the National Rivers Authority has proposed a scheme to do this, which would cost about pounds 300,000 - a scheme that would satisfy Mr Blathwayt.

However, the National Trust objected to moving shingle on the grounds that it would damage the beach aesthetically and disturb the special marine lichens, rare snails and spiders that live there. Unusual plants, including the yellow horned poppy and two rare species of leek, also grow on stable parts of the shingle and in the neighbouring marsh.

In the trust's view, an increase in saltmarsh behind the shingle ridge would enhance the habitat, increasing the area where some of these rare animals and plants could live.

Phil Hewett, spokesman for the National Rivers Authority, said: 'We plan to maintain the ridge for one more year only because the cost of doing it is now greater than the benefit to the land. After that we will let nature take its course and some of the land behind the ridge is likely to revert naturally to saltmarsh.'

(Photograph omitted)