Hopes that Shoresearch surveys will build a picture of the species and habitats that exist along the Essex coast

(From left) Shoresearch volunteers Paul Roberts and Kirsten Morris with (centre) Rachel Langley, Ess

(From left) Shoresearch volunteers Paul Roberts and Kirsten Morris with (centre) Rachel Langley, Essex Wildlife Trust Living Seas Co-ordinator - Credit: Archant

This summer Essex Wildlife Trust has launched a series of Shoresearch surveys to better understand what species exist along the county’s coastline.

Beach at Walton on the naze

Beach at Walton on the naze - Credit: Archant

The last day of the heatwave and what better place to spend it than on the coast.

Not to fritter the hours away sunbathing and swimming in the sea, you understand, but as part of a team surveying a stretch of Essex coastline.

I’d answered the call to join Essex Wildlife Trust’s Shoresearch volunteer scheme - an initiative aimed at identifying and recording animals, plants and habitats along parts of the county’s 350 miles of shoreline. The project hopes to build a baseline of data on the marine wildlife that occurs in Essex and to use the information to see how things change over time.

The flyer I’d seen said volunteers of all abilities and experience were welcome to join in - even those with no prior knowledge of marine life. That was me - eager to give a few hours of my time in return for learning a few things about our coastal wildlife scene.

Shoresearch specimens

Shoresearch specimens - Credit: Archant

Species and habitat data

I was one of three hardy souls who met the Trust’s Living Seas co-ordinator Rachel Langley on the clay and shingle beach below Walton’s Naze.

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Other wildlife trust organisations from different counties have held Shoresearch surveys in the past but Rachel informed us that this summer’s activities are the first data collecting exercises of their kind undertaken by Essex Wildlife Trust.

Anemones Picture: Rachel Langley

Anemones Picture: Rachel Langley - Credit: Archant

“We are doing at it at various locations along the coast - starting in the summer but hoping to run them throughout the year,” she said.

This, said Rachel, was the second survey to be carried out at the Naze. Other locations in Essex where Shoresearch surveys have already taken place include Cudmore Grove on East Mersea and Chalkwell Beach at Southend-on-sea.

She continued: “We are trying to collect both species and habitat data and this can be compiled to use as evidence for marine protection. But it is also useful to see if there are any invasive species or climate change indicator species like certain species of wrack and seaweed, or to see if species and habitats are changing over time.”

I looked up at the Naze’s eroding cliffs - an information board at the top informs visitors that when the Naze’s famous tower was built in 1720 it was a ¼ mile inland. Today, it stands just 50 metres from the cliff edge. This is certainly a dynamic landscape where species and habitats could alter over a short period.

Ray egg case Picture: Rachel Langley

Ray egg case Picture: Rachel Langley - Credit: Archant

Searching rock pools

Rachel had collected a number of common specimens that we were likely to see once we started surveying and took a short time to show us a selection of different seaweeds, shells and egg cases, so we would be able to identify them out in the field. We were also handed a field guide to help us confirm our finds before we started to walk in a group across a designated area in a zig-zagging motion, recording everything of interest that we saw.

Rachel said she had taken the GPS co-ordinates of the area being surveyed, so teams could return to the exact location in the future. She said she hoped to follow up our walking survey with more in-depth quadrant and sediment surveys throughout the year.

It was enjoyable, adults recreating our youth searching rock pools, and good to put names to shells and seaweeds I recognised but had never taken the time to learn their identity.

What struck me was that many of the seaweeds had rather appetising names like sea lettuce, sugar kelp and sea chervil - although I was informed I should not touch the latter plant as it is an irritant responsible for a nasty skin rash condition known as Dogger Bank itch, which in the past affected the hands and elbows of fishermen who picked it up in their nets.

On the wrack

My survey identified a host of dog whelk and whelk shells; native oyster shells and carcasses of little shore crabs. There was much gutweed and piddock shells and a few slipper limpets - a common enough shellfish on these shores but one that is considered an invasive species that takes up habitats used by oysters.

We saw anemones and a colleague found the egg case of a ray.

I also learnt about wracks - spiral wrack, bladder wrack and serrated wrack are all types of common seaweed most people will recognise. Horn wrack on the other hand is a bryozoan - a species that looks like a plant but is in fact a collection of tiny invertebrates, so-called moss animals, that are filter feeders, which sieve food particles in the water.

In the heat it was surprisingly tiring work but fruitful and fascinating - with my new-found knowledge and an appetite to learn more, a walk on the beach will never be the same again.

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