Somerset’s Living Coast
Somerset has nearly 50 miles of varied coastline, 42 of which are designated for their environmental importance. Habitats include sand dunes, rocky shores, cliffs, salt marsh, tidal estuaries, mud flats and the longest continual stretch of coastal deciduous woodland in England. The Severn Estuary itself is recognised under the Convention on Wetlands of International Importance (Ramsar) and other parts of the coast are designated under both the EU Habitats and Birds directives. In addition, there are four Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI); Brean Down, Berrow Dunes, Bridgwater Bay and Blue Anchor to Lilstock, which are renowned for rare plants and insects, overwintering, passage and breeding birds and offer a wealth of unrivalled history, heritage and geology. Bridgwater Bay National Nature Reserve (NNR) is an internationally important feeding and roosting site for many waterfowl and wading birds, the coast between Kilve and St Audries Bay is part of the Quantock Hills AONB, and the western part of the coast to the Devon border is part of Exmoor National Park and also designated as a Heritage Coast.
Somerset Wildlife Trust’s vision for our coast is of a landscape where wildlife flourishes in one of the UK’s most protected estuaries. We see this somewhat forgotten landscape celebrated by communities and decision makers for the immense variety and richness of its wildlife. Coastal communities are part of an informed debate that understands the need to work with nature and find new solutions to coastal defense in light of increasing impacts of climate change. Complementing the Trust’s own on-ground action with local communities is a supporting national policy and economic framework that we’ve helped shape and local decision-making guided by a recognition of the value that estuarine habitats, and their wildlife, play in providing multiple benefits to society.
Despite its fantastic diversity the coast is very much under-appreciated. Popular perceptions are of a coast dominated by the nuclear power station bookended by holiday camps. Lack of awareness leads to these natural assets being undervalued and we believes this is a major contributing factor to an increase in development pressures. The coast is host to the biggest construction site in Europe (Hinkley C nuclear power station). A tidal barrier on the river feeding the main estuary – the Parrett - is proposed. Plans are under consideration for the construction of a suite of tidal lagoons to harness energy from the estuary’s huge tidal range and virtually the entire coast is under review for fracking licenses in the latest onshore oil and gas licensing round. And, as with the Levels and Moors, the threat of climate change and rising sea levels is placing an increased pressure to build hard sea defences for flood risk reduction resulting in coastal squeeze and loss of natural habitats that can protect against sea level rise.
In this dynamic environment with its policy, economic and political complexities we must, as with our work in the Levels and Moors, be able to focus on several complementary approaches at once;
- We must continue to raise awareness with the general public about the importance of the coast through encouraging people to discover wildlife on their doorstep, access our wonderful coast and celebrate its special nature whilst alo helping local communities manage and protect their local patch.
- We are conscious that there is a lot that we, and others, don’t yet know about our coast. There has never been a systematic intertidal survey to record and map our coastal habitats and this will is a priority for us in the coming three years. We will collect data in ways that are compatible with national recording systems and use the data we collect to increase evidence-led decision-making, ensuring developments are planned in a way that does not compromise the significance of the coast.
- Our advocacy work on the coast is very closely linked to that on the Levels and Moors. Over the past two years we have been working with a partnership of organisations including RSPB, the National Trust, Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust, CPRE, Salmon and Trout Association and the Severn Rivers Trust to gather the latest scientific evidence to underpin a positive vision for the Severn Estuary—the Severn Vision project. The Severn Vision sets out an aspiration for an estuary that:
- Is restored as a healthy functioning ecosystem, valued for its internationally important wildlife, habitats and landscapes
- Provides more benefits for people, local communities, places, and economies, including greater resilience to climate change
- Becomes a natural powerhouse, where development is planned and managed in a way that sustains and enhances the estuary’s resources
The Trust has been instrumental in developing the vision and critical to achieving this locally will be developing local advocacy that links to the seven steps outlined as part of achieving the vision. Key parallel advocacy streams with our Levels and Moors work are stimulating a conversation in Somerset that recognises the key importance of climate change and the need to adapt to this. We will contribute to national efforts to ensure there is no weakening of protection of the most important sites for wildlife in our country following the EU referendum decision.