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Wallasea Wetlands Case Study

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Britain became smaller over the weekend, with the redrawing of our coastline to create Europe’s largest man-made nature reserve. Sea banks were breached on Wallasea Island, Essex, as part of an RSPB scheme to restore farmland to its natural state – mud flats, salt marsh and shallow salty lagoons. The coast here is being reconfigured with new sea banks constructed from soil and clay excavated from Crossrail’s tunnels beneath London.

The first such “managed realignment” of our shores was in 1991, on the Essex island of Northey, which became famed as a place of retreat exactly 1,000 years earlier when Earl Byrhtnoth (“bright courage” in old English) charitably withdrew to allow 3,000 Vikings on to the mainland to fight his small army. Byrhtnoth’s retreat had disastrous consequences but the redrawing of coastal maps for conservation and sea defence is a more uplifting story.

Wallasea Island project takes significant step forward as sea walls breached

Some farmers have objected to sacrificing agricultural land on Wallasea, which we struggled to reclaim from the sea over 400 years ago, but the scheme does not simply benefit wading birds such as spoonbill and avocet. People will gain access to these marshes, and new sea banks working with natural features such as salt marsh – superb at absorbing wave energy – provide us with a cheaper, more sustainable alternative to concrete barricades.

Britain has a longer coastline than India, and it will be impossible to maintain existing sea defences over the next century if the most cautious climate scientists’ predictions of rising seas come true. The government won’t admit this, however. Worse, when its head-in-the-sand attitude causes seaside homes to be destroyed by storms, it will shelter behind an obscure 1949 law that absolves it of any responsibility to compensate residents.

This cowardice gives managed realignment schemes a bad name in many coastal communities because the phrase sounds like a euphemism for abandoning sea defences and destroying homes without compensation. So far, realignments such as Wallasea and Medmerry, West Sussex, have not involved many or any homes because it is too controversial to sacrifice them if there is no financial help for residents to relocate or rebuild inland.

In this way, a more resilient coastline is being created in wild places but not actually where people live.

Byrhtnoth may have been slaughtered by the Vikings but retreats before a greater power need not be ignominious. A government with foresight would deliver creative long-term solutions such as Wallasea: the shape of our nation depends on it.

T in the Park ruffles feathers

Despite being barely 250 metres from an osprey’s nest, the T in the Park festival went ahead over the weekend on a controversial new site at Strathallan, Perth and Kinross. It’s a criminal offence to disturb nesting osprey, and locals observed both adult birds sitting 100 metres away from the nest while the bands played on – clearly disturbed behaviour, and not something osprey-watchers have seen at the four other osprey nests in the county.

Thankfully both chicks were still on the nest, with their parents again, as the festival ended on Monday. “There is no question that these birds must’ve suffered extreme stress,” says local resident Zazie Mackintosh. “The festival shouldn’t be allowed to go ahead at Strathallan again.” Muddy T in the Parkers, who have complained of overcrowding, crushes and traffic chaos at the new site, may agree.

Hedgehogs’ merry dance

Woken late Sunday night by heavy breathing in the garden, I tiptoed on to dewy grass and discovered two hedgehogs. One sat motionless, breathing noisily, while another performed a glassy-eyed trundle around it. Hedgehog ecologist Hugh Warwick enlightens me: this lovely ritual is the hedgehog carousel, an enraptured male slowly wooing a (possibly bored) female. The belief that 40,000 circling hogs working in tandem might be the creators of mysterious crop circles was debunked by the Guardian back in 1991 under perhaps its best-ever headline, “Hedgehogs cleared of corn circle dementia”.

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