This morning, I spoke at the Environment Agency's Flood and Coastal Conference in Telford.  The long hand version of what I said is shown below.

I followed a sobering talk from Jeff Lindner, meterologist from Harris County, Texas, who described the extraordinary impact of Hurricane Harvey last year which broke the US rainfall record by 47% with 44 inches of rain.  While the UK doesn't experience the extremes that hit the Caribbean/Gulf of Mexico each hurricane season, we still have to plan to cope with and respond to greater climatic change.

That's why Sir James Bevan, Chief Executive of the Environment Agency, was right when he said today that, in developing the EA new flood strategy we needed to face up to some inconvenient truths: that flooding will continue, the risks are growing and the costs of mitigating risks are rising.  So, he challenged us to work better together, use all the tools available to us and think the unthinkable by considering how much flooding we are prepared to to tolerate and at what cost.

As part of the public debate that the EA will want to generate, we need to ensure that the value of nature is properly reflected in future strategy.  We shall, of course, feed in our experiences and ambitions for this future strategy.


During her speech to launch the 25 Year Environment Plan on 11 January 2018, the Prime Minister said, 

“The environment is something personal to each of us, but it is also something which collectively we hold in trust for the next generation. And we have a responsibility to protect and enhance it.”

In this talk, I want to explain why the natural environment is critical in thinking about future flood and coastal erosion risk management, how we are getting on in trying to reconcile competing needs of humans and wildlife, what our vision is for the future and what are some of the key challenges (including those arising from the UK vote to leave the European Union) that we must address to realise that vision.

As the RSPB has recently launched a Sustainable Shores publication, I shall pay particular attention to the coast, but I shall also allude to action we have taken and is needed inland.

Why are our coasts important?

Our coasts and estuaries are incredibly important to us and the services provided by our coastal habitats is estimated at £48 billion reflecting the role they play in locking up carbon, supporting our fisheries, hosting millions of visitors each year but also protecting us from flooding.  For example, saltmarsh absorbs wave energy and can reduce tidal surges.

But, as anyone that has ventured out to our coasts will know (ie all of you), they are also incredibly important for wildlife boasting >30% of both Europe’s estuarine habitat and saltmarsh.  These intertidal habitats support 1.74 million wintering waterfowl (60% of all the waterfowl in Britain, 6% of waterfowl in NW Europe) and 15% of waders using the East Atlantic flyway use the UK to stop off and refuel. A quarter of the Birds of Conservation Concern red list and over half of the amber listed species use coastal habitats for part of their life cycle, including redshank, little tern, oystercatcher and curlew.

What is the state of our coasts?

In the 2016 State of Nature publication, we reported that 56% of species (for which we have trend data) are declining with 15% of species at risk of extinction.  For coastal habitats, 58% of species have declined.  This is perhaps not surprising given the scale and extent of habitat loss since the Second World War: 8,000 hectares of saltmarsh (constituting 15% of the UK resource), 16,000 ha of sand dunes (18%) and 5,000 ha of shingle (46%).

What have we done to help?

Our challenge is to stop the rot, protect the best and restore the rest.

Legislation such as the EU Nature Directives has helped to protect the best areas of our coast with 80% of all saltmarsh now protected and this legislation has helped to guide development, which historically was the biggest driver of decline. 

However, our coastal habitats remain very vulnerable to climate change and sea level rise. As sea levels rise in response to global warming, intertidal habitats like mudflats and saltmarshes can get squeezed against fixed flood defences (“coastal squeeze”). The latest predictions see us continuing to lose at least 60 hectares (ha) of intertidal habitat a year in the UK due to coastal squeeze, unless action is taken.

To deal with this challenge, while continuing to play our part in the global challenge of reducing greenhouse gas emissions to avert catastrophic climate change, we must also do what we can to restore what we have lost.

The good news is that over recent years we have shown that it is possible to restore lost habitat while meeting our own needs. 

Through more than 70 projects in the UK in the last 25 years, we have developed experience of creating coastal habitat. More than 2,500ha of habitat have been created through techniques such as managed realignment, of which around two thirds are intertidal saltmarshes and mudflats. 

Case studies

The RSPB, working with a range of partners including the Environment Agency, has been at the heart of this effort, helping to deliver and manage more than 33% of the coastal habitat created in the UK (some 880ha). As our experience has increased, so our projects have become larger, with schemes such as Medmerry and the Wallasea Island Wild Coast Project providing landscape-scale benefits for wildlife and people.

At Medmerry (shown above), on the south coast next to Selsey, for example, the Environment Agency led a £30m project to protect 348 properties while also creating 183ha of intertidal habitat.  The RSPB now runs this site and was delighted when a pair of black-winged stilts bred there soon after the breach in 2014.

Medmerry is just one of many examples of projects which have had multiple benefits for people and wildlife.

For example, at St Aidan’s in the Lower Aire Valley (shown below), UK Coal, the Environment Agency and the RSPB and have created a 400 hectare wetland nature park underpinned by its own Act of Parliament.  It stores 7.5 million m3 of flood water and can reduce the downstream flood peak by 400mm protecting homes in Allerton Bywater, Castleford and surrounding villages.  What’s more, it is now providing homes for wildlife with 3 booming bitterns, 11 pairs of black-necked grebes all recorded with spoonbills nesting up the road at Fairburn Ings in 2017 using all of the wetlands in the Lower Aire Valley during the breeding season highlighting the importance of a large and diverse wetland landscape.

We are also active in the uplands where we are trying to demonstrate that it is possible to slow the flow of rivers during big flood events. We have been working with United Utilities at Haweswater in the Lake District National Park and have restored degraded mire habitats, established new woodland and restored Swindale Beck (shown below) to a more natural state.

The need to work with natural processes to reduce risk of damaging flood is not new, nor is the ability of such schemes to deliver important wildlife habitat. Charles I granted a drainage charter to the 4th Earl of Bedford in 1630 facilitating the draining of the fens between Earith and Downham Market.  He recognised that a landscape dominated by natural seasonal flood still needed to be able to accept increased winter flows. Ouse Washes was created (20 miles long, < 1 mile wide).  This enabled agricultural production to intensify throughout the fens while the Ouse Washes (now a RSPB reserve) themselves became a refuge for wetland wildlife lost from the wider landscape.

Today, the Environment Agency has developed a substantial evidence base to show what can be achieved.

What’s our vision of the future?

The 25 Year Environment Plan has stated that it wants “a reduced risk of harm from environmental hazards such as flooding and drought” and to “restore losses suffered over past 50 years”.

This means we need to continue to protect what we have and to redouble our efforts to restore lost habitat. 

At the coast that could mean creating more than 20,000 hectares!

We know from the analysis and mapping undertaken as part of our Sustainable Shores project that there are more than enough places around the coast (we estimate 34,250 ha) where we can replace what has been lost and will be lost in the future. We know what we need to do, where to do it, why and how. But we still haven’t got close to replacing even 25% of the UK area of coastal habitat that has been lost since 1945, and we are struggling to keep up with what continues to be lost each year.

Shoreline Management Plans could create over 6000ha new habitat by 2030 but the rate of implementation would (according to the Adaptation Sub-Committee in 2013) have to increase 5-fold.

So, we need to be smarter in the way we work together and address the serious funding challenge.

And the context for all of this is, of course, the UK vote to leave the European Union which poses a mix of jeopardy and opportunity.

How do we realise this vision?

1. Provide legal underpinning to the 25 Year Environment Plan ambition

The laudable ambition in the 25 Year Environment Plan will mean nothing if it is swept away the next time there is political upheaval.  The only way to secure long term momentum is through legislation – essentially to do for nature restoration, what the Climate Change Act has done for decarbonising the economy.  And, we would expect that ambition established in law would be reflected in the plans of statutory agencies (for example targets for habitat creation as a contribution to the proposed 500,000ha new habitat proposed in the 25 YEP), so they can play their part.

2. Replace lost EU funding and make better use of existing funding

Brexit will result in £428 million of lost EU funding for environmental protection including EU Life funding which is currently the only dedicated nature conservation fund available in the UK. 

This comes at a time when we have estimated that nature needs £2.3 billion annually. 

Fortunately, there are promising signals from the future of farming consultation issued by Defra last month.  This is a great opportunity to ensure more of the £3.1 billion current CAP money spent in the UK is directed towards environmental protection and reducing flood risk.  Equally, more schemes that reduce flood risk – such as Medmerry or St Aidans - could be made to work harder for wildlife.

3. Align resources around shared vision for English regions

The 25 YEP talks about creating Local Natural Capital Plans for 14 Areas in England.  This is an opportunity to map what humans and wildlife need within any given area and make decisions to get the best outcome.  Clearly, it would make sense to ensure all the different strategic plans that we have in any given area for our shores, our catchments our river basins are aligned.  I am sure that everyone would thank us if we did more joined up planning.

4. Make difficult decisions

Acting in the best interests of the public and for the environment, can sometimes affect private interest.  Given what’s at stake, it cannot be right to fudge these decisions.  For example, the Environment Agency has not yet stepped back from maintaining the expensive pump drained system in the Lyth Valley, as recommended by its own cost-benefit assessments. We have to ensure public spending delivers the greatest public benefit.  ,

5. Demonstrate what works to inspire action from others

We now have a range of fabulous examples of how to deliver benefits for both the public and for the environment – including 70 great schemes at the coast.  As we are doing today, let’s keep talking about these fantastic projects to show the art of the possible. 

The Prime Minister has pledged to reduce flood risk and restore the natural environment in a generation.  Given that our climate is changing and risks are growing, it is clear that the clock is ticking.  Let’s work together to get it right.

Fabulous aerial photo of St Aidan's courtesy of my colleague, David Morris

  • Thanks so much for your continued support, RedKite, for this and other recent RSPB actions.

  • So fully agree with what you say Martin. I hope we can have more projects like Medmerry, which I have visited. I think too that if there is a good deal of fringe scrub preserved on these types of project then this can be very good for our farmland birds as well as waders etc. In these types of habitat it usually means that no lnsecticide or very little is applied and hence insects are much more abundant. I am sure it is the drastic decline in insects that is a main cause  for our big losses of small birds, including hirondines.

    So more Medmerries if possible. I am contributing the RSPB Coasts appeal.