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Swathe of Essex marine habitat gains special protection for wildlife

PUBLISHED: 16:59 07 September 2017 | UPDATED: 16:59 07 September 2017

A little tern fishes over the sea - the species will benefit from the extension of the Hamford Water Special Protection Area in Essex, announced by Natural England. Picture: NATURAL ENGLAND

A little tern fishes over the sea - the species will benefit from the extension of the Hamford Water Special Protection Area in Essex, announced by Natural England. Picture: NATURAL ENGLAND

A massive swathe of marine habitat off the Essex coast has been given special international protection to safeguard its wildlife, the Government’s natural environment advisory body has announced.

Part of the Hamford Water Special Protection Area, which has been extended to cover a large area of offshore habitat. Picture: NATURAL ENGLANDPart of the Hamford Water Special Protection Area, which has been extended to cover a large area of offshore habitat. Picture: NATURAL ENGLAND

An extension of more than five square miles has been announced for the existing Hamford Water Special Protection Area (SPA) - a wild, internationally important estuarine basin rich in bird and invertebrate life and containing an intricate network of tidal creeks, mudflats and saltmarshes near Walton-on-the-Naze.

Making the announcement, Natural England said the extension took in open water to give protection to important feeding sites for little terns, a species whose UK population has plummeted by almost 20% over the past two decades.

The Government’s advisory body said the new designation meant Natural England would assess any new disturbances - large-scale developments such as wind-farms, for example - on a “case-by-case basis” to ensure the birds had a safe place to feed in. The open water habitat they required for fishing would be “safeguarded into the future” and the international designation would “help ensure that any disturbance to the birds’ essential feeding areas is minimised.”

The announcement built on the protection already afforded to important little tern breeding sites in the area and helped to ensure “the full range of habitats needed by the birds is protected.”

Avocets - one of the species for which Hamford Water is afforded special protection. Picture: NATURAL ENGLANDAvocets - one of the species for which Hamford Water is afforded special protection. Picture: NATURAL ENGLAND

Alongside the Hamford Water extension, Natural England also announced other so-called “blue-belt” protection moves covering a newly designated area off Northumberland and an extension to the existing Morecambe Bay and Duddon Estuary SPA in Cumbria. The new designations, under the European Union Birds Directive, add an area equivalent to more than 150,000 football pitches - 450sq miles - to the UK’s existing Marine Protected Areas network, giving international protection to feeding habitats for more than 425,000 seabirds for the first time.

Helen Ward, Natural England’s manager in Essex, said of the Hamford Water extension: “This designation – and the protection it affords our iconic and beautiful seabirds – is an important step in protecting the Essex coast for generations to come. The ‘blue belt’ network of marine protected areas will help ensure our important wildlife sites are safeguarded, so that the wonders of the Essex coast and beyond are conserved and improved, to be enjoyed by residents and visitors alike.”

Mark Nowers, the RSPB’s conservation officer for Essex, added: “The estuary is one of the most important sites in Europe for breeding little terns in the summer, but it is also vulnerable and in need of protection and careful management.

“The extension of the Hamford Water SPA to cover foraging areas in the sea off the coast where little terns feed is a really positive step and will help make sure these threatened seabirds can continue to thrive here.”

A black-tailed godwit - Hamford Water is an important site for the species. Picture: NATURAL ENGLANDA black-tailed godwit - Hamford Water is an important site for the species. Picture: NATURAL ENGLAND

Before the extension the Hamford Water SPA covered about 5,400 acres. Also designated as a national nature reserve, a Ramsar site (for its wetland birds) and a Site of Special Scientific Interest, the area is nationally important for avocet, brent goose, black-tailed godwit, redshank, ringed plover, shelduck, teal and grey plover.

Environment Minister and Suffolk Coastal MP Therese Coffey said of the new designations: “We already have one of the strongest track records in the world when it comes to looking after our precious marine environment, and today’s designations will strengthen our blue-belt of protected areas while helping seabirds across the country thrive.”

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