Wildlife threat as seas breach coast

ENVIRONMENT Agency staff were last night arranging for emergency repairs to be carried out after heavy seas caused a major breach in a shingle bank and saltwater flooded across important freshwater wildlife habitat on the Suffolk coast.

By David Green

ENVIRONMENT Agency staff were last night arranging for emergency repairs to be carried out after heavy seas caused a major breach in a shingle bank and saltwater flooded across important freshwater wildlife habitat on the Suffolk coast.

About 800 metres of the shingle bank was breached at Dingle Marshes, between Dunwich and Walberswick, a designated Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) – a longer stretch than suggested by earlier reports.

A little further down the coast, a four-metre gap was gauged in the sand dunes protecting the internationally-important Minsmere bird reserve and damage was also reported in the coastal defences protecting the Walberswick National Nature Reserve .

The damage was caused by heavy seas, whipped up by strong winds, which coincided with a high tide and buffeted the coast in the early hours of the morning.

Rory Sanderson, Environment Agency spokesman, said it was hoped to have heavy plant at the scene of the major breach by the end of the week.

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"However, we will have to wait for a natural build-up of shingle before we have something to work with – it's all disappeared from the area," he said.

Conservationists were yesterday assessing the extent to which freshwater habitat at Dingle Marshes, jointly owned and managed by the RSPB and the Suffolk Wildlife Trust, had been contaminated by saltwater.

There is also a risk that the adjoining Walberswick reedbeds, the biggest in Britain, could be flooded.

"This is a potential disaster for bitterns and other wildlife dependent on freshwater," said Alan Miller, Dingle Marshes warden.

Many fish had been killed and these would reduce the food supply for rare bitterns. Endangered water voles had also been "doomed" by the floods.

"It is the worst breach in the sea wall anyone can remember since the early 1990's. The reedbeds will take five or six years to recover and that's as long as we don't get another breach," Mr Miller said.

Freshwater habitat at Minsmere, an international Ramsar site, a Special Protection Area under European law and a SSSI, escaped damage.

Experts said plants could withstand a certain amount of saline contamination but fish stocks were more vulnerable.

However, while the area could fully recover from one major breach, repeated saltwater intrusion could cause long-term damage.

Yesterday's breach was not expected and conservationists believe there is now a big question mark over the future of freshwater habitat in the area and the population of the rare bittern.

Bitterns, found in greater numbers on the Suffolk coast than in any other part of the country, feed on fish in the freshwater reedbeds and grazing marshes along the coast.

Chris Durdin, RSPB spokesman, said: "This saltwater breach underlines the importance, yet vulnerability, of freshwater wetlands on the Suffolk coast to coastal surges and sea level rise.

"We need to create new freshwater wetlands secure from rising sea levels. While new freshwater habitats are being created, the RSPB wants to see coastal habitats protected, so far as is practical."

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