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Restoring the Wild Coast of King Canute

The RSPB is to harness rising sea levels to create one of Europe’s largest coastal wetlands and help wildlife adapt to climate change.

Tidal waters flowing back and forth on land once claimed by King Canute, will turn three-quarters (1,800 acres) of Wallasea Island in south-east Essex into saltmarsh, creeks and mudflats creating a paradise for wildlife.

The £12 million scheme, called the Wallasea Island Wild Coast Project, will be the RSPB’s most ambitious and costly in the UK and could lure several new species, including spoonbills, which have not nested successfully here for more than 400 years.

Kentish plovers, absent for 50 years, and black-winged stilts, which have only bred in Britain three times, are among birds also expected to thrive on the new reserve. Otters, saltwater fish and specialist saltwater plants could also flourish.

Graham Wynne, Chief Executive of the RSPB, said: “Wallasea will become a wonderful coastal wetland full of wildlife in a unique and special landscape. It will be a supermarket for birds, create nursery grounds for fish and be a true wilderness that people can visit, savour and enjoy.

“We will be restoring habitats that were lost more than 400 years ago and preparing the land for sea level rise. This is land that was borrowed from the sea that now the sea is re-claiming. Our project will make a major contribution to efforts to help wildlife adapt to the serious impacts of climate change.”

Wallasea Island, which is eight miles north of Southend-on-Sea, was a wildlife haven 500 years ago, before being reclaimed for farming.

Its saltmarshes - natural sea defences storing water and absorbing the power of the tides – were destroyed and its wildlife disappeared.

The RSPB project will restore the island’s wetlands creating the largest ‘tidal-exchange’ scheme in the UK. Tidal controls built into existing earth sea walls will regulate the flow of seawater on and off the island.

Wallasea is currently farmed by Wallasea Farms Ltd and is being bought from a private trust that has owned the island for 50 years. Work is due to start in two years’ time once planning permission and other consents are won, and funds raised.

Project Manager Mark Dixon said: “We will have a landscape of marshes, islands, lagoons and creeks little more than 20 inches deep at high tide. Wallasea is one island now but was once five separate pieces of land. We will restore these ancient divisions and each new island will have its own tidal control.

“Many birds will starve if we don’t restore Wallasea. Fish are under incredible pressure too, not just because of overfishing but because of the loss of their saltmarsh nurseries as well. Wallasea is only ten miles from the Thames Gateway and once the work is done, it will be a breathing space for those living there now and for their children in the future.”

Wetland restoration began on Wallasea last year when Defra breached sea walls on the 280-acre northern edge of the island. That land is now managed by the RSPB and will lie adjacent to the Society’s new project, increasing by six-fold the area of wetland on Wallasea.

Joan Ruddock, Minister for Climate Change and Biodiversity, said: “Our coastal habitats are internationally important for wildlife but now face the new threat of climate change and faster sea level rise. We need to plan and manage our coast to adapt to this change not only to benefit wildlife but also to make sure people can continue to visit the wild coast to enjoy its dynamic wildlife, fresh air and solitude.”

Paul Woodcock, Anglian Region Director for the Environment Agency, said: “The Environment Agency is pleased to be working with the RSPB as it develops this exciting wetland creation project. Such an initiative will help our estuaries and coastlines adapt to climate change and sea level rise for the benefit of people and wildlife.”

Dr Mark Avery, the RSPB’s Conservation Director, said: “Our plans for Wallasea reflect the very great difficulties climate change will cause but also the RSPB’s determination to find ways of combating them. We will be providing new sites into which wildlife can move when sea level rise swallows up their existing habitats. We are setting an example for governments to follow. Now it is vital that they do so.”

Cath Harris | alfa
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