The UK’s estuaries and coasts are incredibly valuable: as places to live, work, relax and play, and for the wealth of wildlife they support. They help protect us from flooding; they lock away carbon; they support our fisheries and they attract millions of visitors. In fact, it’s estimated that the value of the services provided by our coastal habitats is £48 billion.
In 2018 we reported on our Sustainable Shores assessment of the UK coast. We identified 30,000 hectares of opportunity around the UK, 13,000 of which is a top priority for replacing past and predicted losses of habitat.
A shrinking resource
However, our coastal zone is in trouble. It is shrinking. Our Sustainable Shores project has found that since World War II we have lost over 15% of our UK saltmarsh (around 8,000ha), 18% of our sand dunes (16,000ha) and 46% of our shingle habitat (5,000ha). These losses are largely down to coastal development and land reclamation. Worryingly, without action, we will lose a further 3000ha by 2050 due to climate change and sea-level rise.
In our Sustainable Shores project report, we have worked with partners to set out how we can address these challenges through habitat creation and restoration, learning from our own experience at the RSPB. Over the last 25 years, the RSPB has been involved in delivering more than a third of newly created coastal habitat including flagship projects such as Wallasea (Wallasea Island Nature Reserve, Essex - The RSPB). Also, Medmerry, which was delivered in partnership with EA, is now being used as a best practice example of a nature-based solution in the UK. EA estimate the overall benefits of £90m compared with a project cost of £28m. Medmerry is now one of only five UK sites recognized by IUCN as setting global standards of Nature-Based Solutions.
The report makes a number of recommendations to UK governments and policymakers to ensure that our precious coastal habitats are protected and enhanced for the benefit of people and wildlife, now and for the future. The project identified that there are sufficient potential opportunities across each region of the UK to ensure there is no net loss of habitat over the next 30 years. But currently the translation of potential opportunities into delivery on the ground is slow, and we are not close to replacing the 25% of habitat lost or keeping up with what continues to be lost each year.
Defra's 25 Year Environment Plan committed the UK Government to “restore losses suffered over past 50 years”. To achieve this, we need to continue to protect what we have and redouble our efforts to restore lost habitat. At the coast, that means creating more than 20,000 hectares. The Sustainable Shores report identifies 34,250 Ha of land 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.
These habitats provide additional benefits and provide examples of Nature-Based Solutions. The Natural Capital Committee recognises that there is "good evidence" that stopping further losses and creating more coastal habitats is a cost-effective measure in managing the rising costs of coastal defence. For example, Saltmarsh can sequester two to four times more carbon than terrestrial forests per area and provides valuable natural defence from coastal flooding and erosion.
Role of RSPB
The RSPB has the expertise and experience to bring to partnerships to deliver complex coastal habitat projects. We have worked in partnership projects aimed at providing valuable wildlife habitat, improving coastal defence, or to provide compensatory habitat for intertidal areas lost through development. These generally have involved managed realignment which involves setting back the sea walls to allow tidal flooding of the seaward side. A key role of the RSPB has been to help facilitate schemes and to improve their design in ways that benefit birds and other wildlife, for example 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.
ReMeMaRe (Restore Meadows Marshes and Reefs).
RSPB is a partner in the EA led project looking to deliver restoration for these coastal habitats. This project has recently produced handbooks to guide restoration.
Beneficial Use of Dredged Sediment
Every year in the UK, large quantities of sediment are dredged to maintain access to our ports and harbours. Although much of this dredged sediment could be used to protect and enhance our coastal habitats, the vast majority is deposited away from our coasts where it provides little or no benefit. This is despite there being a desire amongst regulators for these sediments to be ‘beneficially used’. The attached report describes some examples of how the use of dredged sediment has been used to restore and create valuable coastal habitats, and what needs to be done to encourage more such beneficial use projects in the UK. The RSPB is interested in working with the industry and regulators to deliver new projects, often in combination with the managed realignment projects described above. We are currently working with Harwich Haven Authority and EA to deliver a flagship beneficial use scheme at Horsey Island in Essex which is being delivered as part of project LOTE.