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

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.

What the EU referendum means for water

The water environment and everything it means for us needs to be protected in an era of change post the EU referendum results. Our wetland wildlife, our drinking water, our enjoyment of walking by a river full of life, and the food and farming industries all rely on a healthy water environment.

This is in no way secure. Our major legislation supporting clean water is driven by being a member of the European Union, from the Water Framework Directive and the Urban Waste Water Directive to the Common Agricultural Policy which supports good land management. We need to ensure that the Government does not weaken the protections that give us clean water and that the amount of water we take from the environment is sustainable. This will not be easy. There are so many demands on our water environment from the energy industry, agriculture, not to mention climate change and population growth; the health of our waters is bound to be more vulnerable as everyone clamours to be heard. We need to be the voice for water, for nature.

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Saving Water through WaterSocial

How fortunate are we to have the ease of turning on a tap to have water arrive in an instant? As our population increases so does our demand for water. When more water is abstracted from the system for drinking, bathing, and other activities it can lead to harmful environmental impacts. These range from degraded rivers and ecosystems to increased charges for sewage treatment. For example, in 2015 only 17% of UK river waterbodies achieved the target of ‘good status’ set by the Water Framework Directive. It is clear that there is an urgent need to improve our freshwater environment. On top of saving more water, one solution here is to use the WaterSocial, a social media platform.

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Confusion reigns over water quality figures

Our rivers are among our most iconic landscapes, but in England, at least, all is not well. Rob Cunningham, head of Water Policy at the RSPB looks at the numbers and they don’t look good … and you have a chance to add your voice.

How healthy are English rivers? Sounds like a question we should be able to answer given thousands of monitoring results the Environment Agency gather across the river network annually. But the recent announcement that just 17% of river waterbodies are meeting the Good Status target set by the Water Framework Directive (WFD)  leaves me more confused than enlightened. After all just 6 years ago we were told by the EA that 22% of English rivers were at Good and that this would improve to 32% by 2015 – have things gone so terribly wrongs since then?

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Natural drainage: a whole lot more than drains

I don’t know about you but I seem to get caught up a bit in my life, waking up, breakfast, work, exercise, cooking, washing up, ticking things off the “to do” list, going to sleep. Little things start to irk me and to stress me out: I shout at my computer, I want things to happen faster and I swear when I spill my tea. That’s when I realise, this weekend I have to get out and go for a walk. When I climb a grassy hill, walk along the river or a coast path or the canal I feel myself take a deep breath of air and I start to relax. I forget about all the silly things that were getting my goat and I just enjoy myself and remember that this is it, there is so much more to life than my every day, there is so much more than “me”.

I truly believe that this ability for natural landscapes to make us feel better is one of the hugely important values of urban green space for those people who can’t get as out into the countryside, as I am lucky enough to be able to do. The opportunity for natural flood management in the urban environment to provide such spaces is massive. We could put natural drainage systems into all new developments and there are many opportunities for retrofitting such as into schools and onto hotel roofs and walls. Not only do we provide a solution to our overloaded sewage drainage and reduce the risk of surface water flooding but we provide people with a connection to nature that has been shown to improve health and well-being. Having natural drainage systems in schools can provide a valuable space for outdoor learning and learning about natural processes such as the water cycle. Even schools with only limited outdoor space can accommodate these systems (see

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Hello and welcome

Hello and welcome to the Blueprint for Water’s new website

At Blueprint our vision is:

Water matters: it is integral to our lives for drinking, health and recreation, as well as integral to the lives of all plants and animals. All waters and wetlands, from our ponds and rivers to our seas should be alive with the splashing, buzzing and croaking of flourishing wildlife. By working together and managing our water more effectively, we can ensure a future full of wildlife-rich places that everyone can explore and enjoy.

This will be a challenge, today less than a quarter of England’s water is healthy and our salmon, water vole, freshwater crayfish and eel populations are just some of our native species in decline and under threat.

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