Either side of the new year, I visited three of the RSPB’s most impressive conservation projects in England. Last week I was with RSPB colleagues exploring our work in the Pennines and the Lakes brought to life by short, winter-appropriate tours of Geltsdale and Haweswater (with the latter looking particularly picturesque after a dusting of snow); back in December, I returned to Wallasea Island for the first time since we breached the sea wall (in 2015) to see the impact of what is Europe's largest coastal habitat restoration project.
In a year when we are making the case for new targets for nature’s recovery at home (through the Westminster Environment Bill and equivalent legislation across the UK) and globally (to replace the 2020 Aichi targets), we need to apply the lessons from what we have already achieved to help us deliver the step change that we need to address the climate and nature emergency. As I have written previously, if we are successful in securing a new target of 30% of land to be well protected and managed for nature by 2030, we need a six-fold increase from where we are today, which based on condition assessments of terrestrial protected areas in the UK is just 5% of the UK. What's more, Defra is committed to providing 500,000 hectares of new habitat in England.
Given that I am returning to northern England in the spring, I thought today, I’d put a spotlight on what we have achieved through the Wallasea Island Wild Coast Project, offer my personal take on the key ingredients as to why it is so successful and say what it means for the future of coastal habitat creation. It will be an attempt to continue my conditional optimism theme for the year. You can familiarise yourself with the project by watching the video below.
The big context to Wallasea Island is the decline of state of nature at the coast where 58% of species have declined in the recent decades. 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%). The RSPB has been a the forefront of trying to restore lost coastal habitat.
My colleague Malcolm Ausden has (with others) written an excellent paper on the impact of RSPB’s wetland restoration which featured in the June 2019 issue of British Birds. In it, he explains that “most intertidal habitat creation schemes that the RSPB has been involved in have been partnership projects, aimed at providing both valuable wildlife habitat and improve coastal defence, or to provide compensatory habitat for intertidal areas lost through development. Most schemes have used managed realignment which involves setting back the sea walls to allow tidal flooding of the seaward side.” He goes on to say that “the key roles of the RSPB have been to help facilitate schemes and to improve their design in ways that benefit birds and other wildlife. The main improvements have been achieved through incorporating lagoons and islands, to provide feeding areas and safe high-tide roosts for birds and safe nesting sites for waders, gulls and terns.”
This sounds pretty straightforward, but any of these projects require an enormous amount of skill, determination and ingenuity. And the team behind Wallasea Island (people like Jeff Kew, Chris Tyas and Mark Dixon) had that in spades.
You can read all about the background to Wallasea Island here. Suffice to say that the results have already been stunning. For example, the habitat work completed in 2019 resulted in 146 pairs of breeding avocets, 124 corn bunting territories in the summer and 21,400 waterbirds in winter. The recently created saline lagoons are supporting a huge number of of waterbirds with more than 5,300 birds recorded during the last Wetland Bird survey in October.
So what made it successful? Listening to Jeff, Chris and Malcolm tell the whole story last month, I pulled out ten things which I think made Wallasea Island a success and which could guide future schemes...
Defra's 25 Year Environment Plan committed the UK Government 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 have our work cut out to deliver change on this scale over this decade. But our experience at Wallasea Island provides lessons for how to make this happen. Of course, the best way to get to know Wallasea Island is to go and see it for yourself! You can plan your visit here. Do go, and be prepared to be inspired.
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