Saltmarshes – the unsung heroes of our coasts!

Terry Whittaker/2020VISION

Rachel Langley, Living Seas Coordinator explains her love of Essex's saltmarshes.

Saltmarshes are the unsung heroes of our coast.  Not only do they support a huge biodiversity – from tiny critters within the mud, fishes in the creeks, to birds on the shore; they also support and protect us – and are one of our key allies in fighting the climate crisis. They deserve our recognition, respect, and protection.

A distinctive feature of estuaries, these changeable habitats are regularly flooded by the tide and are made up of unique, salt-tolerant plants. It is the roots of this highly adapted vegetation that bind the precious mud and creates semi-sheltered areas. The twists and turns of saltmarsh channels act as fish nursery areas, allowing juvenile fish to find refuge and feed – and predatory fish to hunt! These fish go on to support the biodiversity of the wider seas.

Not only do these muddy habitats protect us from coastal erosion and storm surges, but they also help us combat climate change. The Wildlife Trusts’ recent ‘Let nature help’ report champions this often underappreciated yet essential habitat – one hectare of saltmarsh can capture two tonnes of carbon a year and lock it into sediments for centuries!

However, in the UK we are losing nearly 100 hectares of saltmarsh a year due to a combination of threats including sea level rise, development, an increase in storm surges and eutrophication. Despite being an iconic part of the Essex coastline, over 60% of our saltmarshes have been affected by erosion over the last 20 years.

saltmarsh

Terry Whittaker/2020VISION

At Essex Wildlife Trust, we are proud of our saltmarshes. They are a key part of Essex’s wildlife, landscape, heritage, and identity - anyone who has been lucky enough to see the purple swathes of delicate sea lavender carpeting the marshes, or heard the distinctive calls of our coastal birds echoing across the channels will surely agree.

Saltmarsh degradation and loss are not new threats – but they are coming into sharp focus on a national scale and saltmarshes are starting to get the recognition they deserve.

Essex Wildlife Trust has been protecting, restoring and creating saltmarsh habitats for many years – and we have a two-pronged approach.

Coastal realignment projects at our Abbotts Hall Farm (Blackwater estuary) and Fingringhoe Wick (Colne estuary) nature reserves are shining examples of landscape-scale conservation in action. By breaching parts of the sea walls, the projects have created over 70 hectares of new intertidal habitat – including valuable saltmarsh.  In just over five years, the Fingringhoe Wick intertidal area is fully functional for feeding wading and wetland birds, including dark-bellied brent geese, avocet, grey plover and shelduck.

Excitingly, it is also already acting as a fish nursery area - with juvenile European bass, sand smelt, thin-lipped grey mullet and common gobies all being found in surveys of the area. Trained marine citizen scientists and Essex Wildlife Trust staff had similar discoveries at another Essex Wildlife Trust saltmarsh, finding over 160 fish in just two small surveys, including a baby squid! Both these surveys beautifully demonstrate the importance of saltmarshes as fish nursery areas and that these complex habitats are key to supporting the recovery of our marine wildlife.

More recently and at a smaller-scale, Essex Wildlife Trust and the Environment Agency have been exploring an experimental, low-cost approach to saltmarsh restoration. Coir roll structures (which we affectionately refer to as ‘saltmarsh sausages’) were installed in selected saltmarsh creeks (with the help of Essex Wildlife Trust volunteers) to combat saltmarsh erosion.  After only one summer, they had already been colonised by saltmarsh plants and encouraged sediment to build up – both of which will consolidate and strengthen the marshes. All structures are being monitored to determine the success of this low-cost restoration technique and its potential for other sites along the Essex coast.

We are also working with the University of Essex to assess and showcase the amazing carbon sequestration and storage abilities of Essex’s saltmarshes and these key projects. Watch this space!

You can probably tell how much we love saltmarshes in Essex – and that we are committed to protecting and championing this frankly crucial habitat. We are in a biodiversity and climate crisis and we must be ambitious and forward-thinking now to safeguard wildlife – and ourselves – in the future. So next time you look upon a muddy shoreline, give saltmarshes the recognition they deserve!