Protecting the Essex Estuaries

28 September 2021  /  By Alan Kavanagh, Natural England, and Cameron Alston, Volunteer

Alan Kavanagh

We partnered Essex Wildlife Trust and trained a team of volunteers to conduct recreational activity observations along the Essex coastline over the summer. Alan Kavanagh, Natural England’s Essex Site Lead, and volunteer Cameron Alston, explain how and why we did it…

Why Essex Estuaries?

With 350 miles of varied coastline, Essex provides unique opportunities to get out and enjoy the coastal environment. Maybe that’s metal detecting for military artefacts in the muds around Canvey, relaxing on Frinton’s sandy beaches, or spotting the world’s largest container ships in Harwich port. Essex is home to schools of harbour porpoise, massive seal breeding colonies, and endangered seahorses. It’s also on the migratory route of thousands of seabirds seeking shelter from harsh Arctic winters. It is important that human interaction with such fragile wildlife is managed to minimise disturbance.

Boats moored in seagrass along the Thames Estuary/Jo Sinclair

By collecting information on recreational use of the coastline, we can build a picture of possible pressures on fragile habitats such as seagrass meadows. In Essex, seagrass plays an important role in the diet of many seasonal birds who like to feast on it during the autumn months. Seagrass is also important in our joint fight against climate change. It has an extraordinary ability to adsorb Carbon Dioxide from the atmosphere and trap it within the accumulated sediments at each tide. Unfortunately seagrass is at only 2% of its historic maximum extent in Essex. It needs our help.

How we gathered data

Cameron Alston

Cameron says: “Our task was to observe the diversity of recreational activities and map boat locations in relation to seagrass beds. The coastline was divided into sites which were monitored by Citizen Scientists who each completed six surveys between July and August 2021. After a short training session, I was allocated two local sites: Thorpe Bay and Shoebury Common Beach, which was much busier with boat activity as it’s the base for a yacht club.

“My colleague and I had 12 observation periods to complete. The observations were made at low and high tides monitoring the weather, temperature, wind speed and direction, and cloud cover.  Data was collected on recreational activities within a 500m radius of where we were stationed including compass bearing, type of vessel and distance. We also included additional activities that were taking place at that time, such as kayaking, swimming, jet skiing and paddle boarding.”

What’s next?

Dog pawprint in seagrass/Jo Sinclair

Using seagrass maps and the data our volunteers collected we can highlight areas that need more protection and understand some of the pressures they currently face: scouring from boat moorings, trampling by walkers, or being dug up by bait diggers. Natural England and Essex Wildlife Trust can look to improve management so that seagrass can thrive and continue to support wonderful wildlife.

Management may include restricting access at certain times of year to ensure seabirds are undisturbed. It can also involve trialling innovative mooring methods to reduce chain scour, and working to inform local people, tourists, and children about our fragile but fantastic habitats.

We’ll be conducting more recreational activity observations next year to monitor any changes in seagrass and in recreational activities. We’ll be seeking participants on our volunteer page nearer the time, so check back for details. Cameron says: “It’s been a good project to work on and a real eye opener. Over recent years I have become increasingly interested in conservation and wanted to take part in something unique. I would recommend this project to anyone wishing to volunteer, and I hope to be taking part in future seagrass monitoring sessions.”

Thanks to Rachel Langley from Essex Wildlife Trust for helping coordinate the project throughout Essex, and to all the volunteers who gave up their time to collect observations.