Sustainable Shores – Are we doing enough to address habitat loss at our coast?

Across the UK, we have lost significant amounts of coastal habitat to development and coastal squeeze. So, are we doing enough to address this loss? A simple question you might think, but one that is vexing the RSPB and other environmental NGOs.

The UK National Ecosystem Assessment[i] estimated that the overall extent of coastal habitat in the UK has reduced by 16% since 1945. The figures are worse in England where we have lost 20% or around 13,000ha, excluding mudflat[ii].

The same report projects further coastal margin habitats loss, just due to coastal squeeze, at around 8% by 2060. Much of this habitat will be lost from our most important wildlife sites. The Environment Agency estimates that 1,200 hectares of internationally protected (i.e. SAC/SPA) intertidal habitat in England will be lost due to coastal squeeze by 2025, whilst in Wales the figure is 260 hectares[iii].

So what are we losing? As well as their biodiversity value our coastal habitats provide us with flood risk benefits, recreational assets, carbon sinks and crucial fish spawning areas.

Whilst the threat is frightening, we do have the solutions in our gift to address it if we chose to implement them. We have seen more than 70 managed realignment and regulated tidal exchange projects in the UK over the last 25 years[iv]. Projects such as Medmerry and Wallasea have redefined the art of the possible. In all around 2,500ha of coastal habitat has been created in the UK, including around 1,600ha of intertidal habitat. However, around half of this intertidal habitat was compensating for projects and plans that were causing habitat loss, leaving around 800ha of new intertidal habitat in 25 years. This compares to the 13,000ha reported lost in England alone since 1945. We certainly have the skills but do we have the will?

If we look at it another way, just implementing our current Shoreline Management Plans in England means realigning 10% of the coast by 2030 (15% by 2060) and would create around 6200ha of coastal habitat. This would more than offset the habitat losses that are predicted in the same time period. It would also save us between £180m and £300m in the long term when compared to maintaining the current hard defences. However, since 1990 we have only realigned around 1.5% of the coast[ii].. At this rate it is going to take us nearly 175 years to have achieved what we planned to do by 2030.

So, unfortunately I suspect the answer to my opening question is: NO, we aren’t doing enough. We aren’t keeping pace with the rate of habitat loss and we aren’t adapting our coastline fast enough to meet the challenges of the future.

What are we going to do about it?  Well, this will be one of the questions we will be looking to answer in a new project I am leading at the RSPB called Sustainable Shores, which will report in the Autumn. If you want to find out more get in touch at nathan.richardson@rspb.org.uk

The managed realignment project at Medmerry is the biggest on the open-coast in Europe (Image: Environment Agency)

Dr Nathan Richardson
Senior Policy Officer, RSPB

[i] UK National Ecosystem Assessment (2011)

[ii] Managing the Land in a Changing Climate. Adaptation Sub-Committee Progress Report 2013.

[iii] UK Climate Change Risk Assessment 2017: Evidence Report (2016)

[iv] ABPmer (2017)  UK Marine Habitat Creation Schemes. ABPmer White Paper No.R.2781.