Press Release

East coast wetlands added to UK’s list of potential World Heritage sites

Wetlands along the east coast of England, from the Humber to the Thames, have successfully been added to the UK’s Tentative List of World Heritage sites.

Alice Weatherston5 min read
  • England’s east coast wetlands, “a habitat with super-powers”, have become one of just five new sites added to the UK’s ‘Tentative List’ of World Heritage sites.
  • An independent expert panel convened by government described the application as delivering “a clear and convincing case for the potential to demonstrate Outstanding Universal Value”.
  • Inclusion on the list will enable a full proposal to be developed alongside local communities and conservation organisations, and submitted to UNESCO for consideration over the coming years.

Wetlands along the east coast of England, from the Humber to the Thames, have successfully been added to the UK’s Tentative List of World Heritage sites.

England’s east coast wetlands will be added to the UK’s Tentative List of World Heritage sites along with just five other new sites, government has announced today [10th April 2023].

Inclusion on this exclusive list is the first stage towards joining UNESCO’s (United National Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation) World Heritage List, which recognises cultural and natural heritage across the globe considered to be of outstanding universal value to humanity. If accepted by UNESCO the east coast wetlands could join a list of some of the world’s most iconic sites, such as the Great Barrier Reef, the Galapagos Islands and Mount Kilimanjaro. 

The proposed site receiving backing from government brings together a coastal network of wetlands covering 170,000 hectares (two New York cities), from the RSPB's Blacktoft Sands reserve on Humber estuary in the North to RSPB Wallasea Island, Essex and coastal Kent reserves along the River Thames in the South. Well-known sites such as RSPB Minsmere, Suffolk and the National Trust's Blakeney National Nature reserve, Norfolk have both recently been featured in BBC’s Wild Isles series and would also be included. 

The application was initiated in 2022 by the RSPB, National Trust and Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust (WWT), with endorsement from Local Authorities and The Crown Estate following a report authored by marine and coastal habitat consultants ABPmer which highlighted the area as one of the world’s most important places for nature. 

An independent expert panel recruited by government described the east coast wetlands proposal as presenting “a clear and convincing case for the potential to demonstrate Outstanding Universal Value” both through the role the wetlands play in supporting migratory birds along the East Atlantic Flyway migratory route, as well as the globally leading examples of coastal adaptation in the face of a changing climate.  

Michael Copleston, RSPB England Director, said: “We are absolutely thrilled that the global importance of England’s east coast has been recognised by government and that the east coast wetlands will now be part of the UK’s Tentative List of World Heritage sites. These diverse places provide an essential refuge for over 155 bird species as well as world-leading examples of how we can manage our coastlines in the face of a changing climate, with true value for nature and people.” 

The east coast of England is one of the most vulnerable coastlines in the UK. Sea levels are expected to rise due to climate change, threatening many habitats and communities. Along this coast, world-leading projects are delivering flood defence adaptations and conservation side-by-side. Wetlands provide a cost-effective and nature-friendly solution to reduce erosion and flood risk, as well as being rich landscapes for people and businesses, providing nursery grounds for fish, carbon storage, and space for recreation. 

Dan Roberts, Project Manager (Nature-based Solutions) at the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust, said: “England’s east coast wetlands are vital for the survival of hundreds of thousands of migrant birds visiting us every year. They are a globally important biodiversity hotspot and a place visiting wildlife can reliably find food and shelter on their epic journeys along the length of Britain.

“It’s fantastic that the government has given these wetlands – a habitat with super-powers which also deliver amazing benefits like flood defence and a significant amount of carbon capture, a chance at being one of UNESCO’s World Heritage sites.” 

Paul Forecast, Regional Director at the National Trust, said: “The National Trust looks after incredible places on the east coast for nature and people. World Heritage site status would be a fitting title for what are some of the most exciting and abundant places for wildlife. Sadly, these places are also on the front line of the threat from sea level rise due to climate change. World Heritage Site status would remind us all of their importance and fragility and engender urgent action to protect them for future generations.”

Michael Copleston, added: “We’re at the beginning of a thorough process but we’re really looking forward to working with local communities and other partners up and down the coast to build a strong case for UNESCO over the coming years. We hope that this inspires us all to recognise and value the east coast. By renewing these wetlands we can conserve these habitats, protect coastlines and our way of life long into the future.” 

Spring is a busy but sensitive time for nature along the east coast, with around 200,000 birds visiting, including rare ground-nesting birds settling in for breeding season. They are attracted to the shores by the rich mud and marshes which provide a bounty of invertebrates to feed on, wet meadow and shingle habitat to breed on and sheltered places to roost. 

Michael Copleston, added: “When you’re out and about this spring, take a look around at the busy birdlife, buzzing insects and emerging wildflowers right there on your doorstep, it’s an incredible time to see some amazing wildlife. Just remember to give them a bit of space.”  

Currently there are just two Natural World Heritage sites in the UK; Dorset and East Devon Coast and the Giant’s Causeway and Causeway Coast. In addition to two UK overseas territories in the Gough Islands in the South Atlantic and Henderson Island in the South Pacific.  

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