Spotlight on Essex Estuaries
31 August 2023 / By Jules Agate
New Essex Site Lead Jules is off in search of seagrass
I’m excited to get cracking in my role as the new Natural England Marine Lead Advisor for the ReMEDIES project in Essex. One of the first things for me to do has naturally been to see Essex seagrass.
Here in the Essex Estuaries, our seagrass meadows are mainly made up of patches of dwarf eelgrass (Zostera noltei). It is usually found in the intertidal zone, so is exposed to the air at low tide but underwater at high tide. It has shorter, narrower blades that appear more delicate than those of common eelgrass (Zostera marina), which is generally found underwater, though the two species do sometimes grow together.
Like its underwater relative, dwarf eelgrass has declined significantly in the UK. In Essex, our seagrass beds are estimated to be at just 2% of their historic extent.
Having previously worked on Z. marina in the SW of England, I was keen to find Zostera noltei in Essex, photograph it and become more familiar with it. I enlisted the help of Alex Smith from the Essex Wildlife Trust (EWT). Alex is the EWT Marine and Coastal Engagement Officer. A local guy, with great knowledge of the Essex coast. I was lucky to have him to accompany me on a warm summer morning to help me in my quest.
Exploring the shores
The local knowledge gained from working with EWT is invaluable. They connect us to local stakeholders that can help with our project aims. They also help us communicate our seagrass conservation messages to local people. EWT even have a team of local volunteers who survey leisure activities in the area to help us understand how to best protect the seagrass.
St Lawrence is on the beautiful Blackwater Estuary and is one of the sites that EWT volunteers survey. They record sightings of yachts, motor boats, water sports, beach cyclists, walkers, dogs, bait diggers and others who might impact on the seagrass. As we arrived on shore, the high tide quickly started receding. Some of the sandy bed was exposed enough for us to carefully walk on, so that we could get closer to the seagrass.
Beautiful seagrass meadows
Glinting in the sun, the seagrass here forms a dense bluey-green meadow in places. It provides an important habitat for many species, including juvenile fish and shellfish. I saw periwinkles of varying colours, gliding on top of the fronds, grazing on algae. In some places seaweeds have colonised rocky surfaces in between the seagrass.
Alex took me through the methodology of the impact surveys. It is relatively simple yet generates valuable data to inform our work to protect these rare habitats in Essex. On a weekday morning this site was peaceful – in an hour, we saw only one dog walker. Having three years of data collected across multiple sites will give us a good understanding of the pressures caused by recreational activity along the Essex coast.
Our quest completed, Alex had to leave whilst I took some photographs and then retired to a bench to munch my lunch. On the bench I was joined by a group of 6 spot ladybirds that were everywhere in huge numbers (a group of them is sometimes called a loveliness!). Appreciating the beauty and space of the estuary, with the seagrass bed growing ever more visible with the falling tide, I felt so lucky to be part of the ReMEDIES project, aiming to help this amazing and vital coastal habitat to recover and grow.
Many thanks to Alex Smith of the Essex Wildlife Trust and to all the volunteers that have assisted with the surveys.
All images credited to Jules Agate.