Essex fields flooded to create ‘biggest’ wetland

Over 100 hectares of fields on Wallasea Island in Essex were returned to the sea to make Britain's biggest man-made salt marsh, compensating for wetlands lost through port developments.

Bulldozers and trucks breached hundreds of metres of seawall on Tuesday, flooding fields to create a wetland that will provide feeding and breeding grounds for migratory and wading birds.

The newly created tidal flats will act as an additional buffer zone and increase storm and flood protection, Defra said. A new sea-wall has been built further inland.

Most of the wetlands that once lined the Essex coast have been transformed into agricultural land and developed areas over the centuries, with only 2,000 of the original 35,000 hectares remaining.

Biodiversity minister Barry Gardiner said: “At Wallasea, we have balanced the needs of wildlife, flood management, landscape and people to recreate some of the ancient wetlands of East Anglia.

“Saltmarsh is more rare than rainforest, and is important to people, particularly as a flood and storm defence, and to wildlife. Hundreds of thousands of wetland birds rely entirely on the Essex saltmarsh for their food each winter.”

The £7.5m Wallasea Wetlands project Island is a cooperative effort by Defra, the Environment Agency, English Nature and the Royal Society for Protection of Birds (RSPB).

It was initiated by the RSPB’s legal challenge over similar wetlands lost on the Kent coast through port developments. The European Court of Justice ruled that the UK Government had acted illegally in transforming the protected Lappel Bank wetlands into a cargo port in the 1990s, and ordered it to create a new wetland in compensation.

As well as providing habitats for birds like oystercatchers, curlews and dunlins, Wallasea wetlands will help preserve rare fish, marine life and insects. It will also make the coast and its wildlife more accessible to people.

Project manager Mark Dixon said: “Creating this wetland has been a major feat of engineering. More than 600,000 tonnes of non-polluted navigation dredgings that would otherwise have been dumped at sea have been used to create this habitat.”

More details can be found on the Defra website.

Goska Romanowicz

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