Conservationists let sea reclaim wheatfields

Michael McCarthy,Environment Editor
Monday 04 November 2002 01:00

The maps of the British coastline will need redrawing after this morning when a large area of Essex farmland will be returned to the sea – for the long-term benefit of wildlife and perhaps people.

More than 220 acres of new saltmarsh will come into being when, at 11.23am, the spring tide rushes through four breaches made in the sea wall at Abbotts Hall farm, on the Blackwater estuary near Colchester, and covers what once were wheat fields.

The project, by a partnership of wildlife organisations and the Government, is part of a nationwide initiative to restore the country's declining coastal wetlands. In the South-east especially, rising sea levels, and a natural sinking of the land, are steadily destroying salt marshes and other coastal habitats, such as the inter-tidal zone vital for feeding birds, as the encroaching sea comes up against fixed sea walls.

John Hall, the director of the Essex Wildlife Trust, which owns Abbotts Hall farm, said: "People don't realise how quickly it's happening. We have lost about 25 per cent of our coastal salt marshes in the past 20 years."

Last month, a similar but smaller-scale "managed realignment" of the coast took place at Freiston on The Wash but when the coastal fields at Abbotts Hall are flooded, to regenerate gradually as natural saltmarsh and saline lagoons, both vital wildlife habitats, it will represent the largest coastal realignment project undertaken in Europe.

It is expected to bring benefits for the estuary and its wildlife, which include Brent geese, wild ducks such as wigeon, wading birds such as lapwing and redshank, and wild plants such as marsh samphire and sea lavender.

But not only biodiversity would gain, said the director-general of the Wildlife Trusts, Simon Lyster. "We hope this will be a flood defence cheaper to maintain than the sea wall, and a provider of jobs, through an expanded oyster fishery, and through nature tourism," Dr Lyster said. "We hope it will provide more jobs for the local rural economy than the wheatfields would."

With its new saltmarshes, Abbotts Hall Farm will form the centrepiece in a conservation jigsaw that will link more than 3,000 acres of wildlife-rich land along 1.5 miles of the Essex coast. The 700-acre farm was bought by the Essex Trust for £3m, with a legacy of more than £1m from a member, Joan Elliot, and other funding from the World Wide Fund for Nature, the Heritage Lottery fund and English Nature. The Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is backing the project with more than £400,000 over the first 10 years.

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