Bigger, Better and Better Connected: Reflections on Habitat Restoration at Steart Marshes

Bigger, Better and Better Connected: Reflections on Habitat Restoration at Steart Marshes

Steart Marshes in Somerset is one of the largest examples of managed retreat (coastal realignment) in England. As a result of its design, it has rapidly become of great importance for biodiversity, and is also delivering wider ecosystem services benefits.

In this article, BSG Ecology Partner Peter Shepherd reflects on the lessons that can be learned from projects such as Steart if we are to deliver the bigger, better and better connected network of habitats envisioned for Britain by Sir John Lawton in his 2010 review[1]

The Steart Project

In June 2019 Peter was given a guided tour of Steart Marshes by Alys Laver of the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust. It proved an inspiring and informative day, and one that provided valuable insights into the challenges of large scale habitat restoration, planning, implementation and long term management[2].

Steart Marshes is a project of scale[3] and ambition. Located on a peninsula between the River Parrot and the Severn Estuary, this joint project between the Environment Agency and the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust (WWT) is helping natural processes to create an exciting mosaic of lagoon, mudflat, saltmarsh, transitional grassland and large expanses of freshwater and coastal terrestrial habitats on what was previously agricultural land.

Research and survey work is being undertaken to better understand what the project is delivering. The process and success of saltmarsh restoration is one focus[4], alongside which there is a wide-ranging program of survey for target habitats and species, run by volunteers working on behalf of WWT. This team is at capacity and there is a waiting list – a testament to how inspiring the project has been to local people and conservation volunteers.

Steart Marshes is not just about habitats and species, however, and WWT and the Environment Agency are keen to understand the wider benefits of this type of project (the ecosystems services it provides) in financial terms. Researchers have qualitatively and financially quantitatively considered provisioning, regulatory, cultural and supporting services and conservatively concluded the Steart project is likely to provide a net annual benefit of between £491,155 and £913,752[5].

Building Resilience

Traditionally nature (biodiversity) conservation in the UK has been dominated by relatively small-scale initiatives. Despite 60 years of effort by conservation organisations, sympathetic landowners and numerous volunteers, however, biodiversity in the UK continues its steady decline.

Large scale conservation projects have become more frequent in recent years. For different reasons a number of extraordinary projects/sites with different starting points, timeframes and funding mechanisms have emerged. Steart Marshes, Wicken Fen and the Wicken Fen Vision, The Great Fen Project, Loch Garten, Abernethey RSPB reserve, re-wilding at Knepp Estate, and the very exciting Summit to Sea project all have one thing in common; their aim is to get large scale natural (or as natural as we can get it) processes operating. These are good examples of the ambition needed if we are to meet the vision set out by Sir John Lawton, halt biodiversity loss and build in the resilience we need to adapt to climate change.

These projects are not enough, however. Existing action needs to be accompanied by the delivery of a national strategy that results in the establishment of new large scale, nationally important natural infrastructure if the Lawton vision is to be realised. Identifying the new initiatives to deliver this may not be as challenging as it first appears, as there are a plethora of local-scale plans, strategies and books that could be used to identify possible areas for large scale wild landscapes[6], it is the delivery mechanisms that are more challenging.

Challenges in Delivery

In the 25 Year Plan, the Government signaled an important change in its thinking about biodiversity, natural capital and management of environmental assets and the services they provide. Clearly changes are planned for how we as a society support land owners in managing their land for public good. The thinking is therefore gathering some momentum, but how can this positive intention take the next steps towards delivering for biodiversity?

We are very used to hearing about the importance of infrastructure to society; we have an Infrastructure Commission and a separate planning process for Nationally Important Infrastructure Projects that help guide expanding airports, new roads, high speed railways and urban extensions through the planning system. It is interesting to wonder how quickly and effectively biodiversity decline could be addressed if there was a similar system in place for natural infrastructure? With a positive policy climate and a clear route through the system, developing land options would become easier in principle for those with the ambition and vision to bring projects forward.

Securing funding for projects and land management then becomes the critical issue in not only getting projects started but sustaining them into the future; where would this national body secure the money to invest in such projects? Green investment in natural capital and ecosystem services may bring more private finance into the environmental sphere; this is a growing area and one with clear potential to finance land management schemes. There is also the prospect of biodiversity offsetting payments generating millions of pounds. Perhaps a proportion of this budget should be reserved for nationally important green infrastructure projects? – maybe the 10% uplift currently mooted by Defra in their consultation[7].

Moving Forward

There is a clear and obvious need for more projects like Steart Marshes. These not only deliver for biodiversity on a significant scale, but also result in numerous other ecosystem service benefits.

It is therefore critical to move rapidly from policy intentions to establishing a commission or similar body whose role it is to assist such projects through the planning system. This in turn will provide greater investor confidence that such projects are deliverable and make financial sense.

If the Government has the will to jump these hurdles there is the potential for numerous exciting projects that will deliver land use change over thousands rather than tens or hundreds of hectares, and we will start to achieve the connection with nature so much of society appears to have lost.

If you would like further information or advice on natural capital, ecosystem services or biodiversity net gain please get in touch with one of our offices.

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[1] Lawton Review

[2] Issues the project has had to consider in the planning and design stages have included uncertainties such as likely periods of inundation in different parts of the site and, consequently, the likely outcomes in terms of habitats, to re-distribution of sediment, to more practical issues such as how to deal with protected species, and whether to keep or remove the (few) hedges and the field drains within the Site.

[3] The site is over 3 km in length and 1 km in width (262 hectares).

[4] https://scienceofsteart.com/

[5] Vieira da Silva L., M Everard and R.G. Shore (2014). Ecosystem services assessment at Steart Peninsula, Somerset, UK. Ecosystem Services Vol. 10 p. 19-34.

[6] Taylor, P. (2005). Beyond conservation and wildland strategy. Earthscan

[7] https://consult.defra.gov.uk/land-use/net-gain/supporting_documents/netgainconsultationdocument.pdf

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