Managed retreat

12 November saw Christine and me on the coast near Selsey, just south of Chichester, in brilliant sunshine but a fierce, northerly wind that emanated from the arctic. We had parked our car close to Earnley church to visit the western side of the RSPB’s Medmerry reserve and walked along the track, past the RSPB viewing point, to the shingle beach.

The area where the old sea wall was breached, with some of the old wooden sea defences in various states of degradation (Photo: Chris Feare)

Climate change associated sea level rise poses a threat to many low-lying areas of the English coast. The RSPB’s new reserve follows coastal engineering work by the UK government’s Environment Agency. This involved creating a new sea wall inland of the old sea defences, followed by breaching the old shingle barrier to allow the sea to reclaim an area of undeveloped land within – a process christened “managed retreat”. This has led to the creation of new salt marsh and creeks in the inundated area, along with lagoons and environment-friendly farming.

Remains of old wooden groynes on the shingle beach close to the breach (Photo: Chris Feare)




On our visit the area was teeming with waterfowl. Canada Geese, Wigeon, Mallard and Teal predominated, with smaller numbers of Brent Geese, Shelduck, Gadwall, Tufted Ducks, Common Pochards, Coot and Moorhens. There may have been others but shaking binoculars and streaming eyes, thanks to the strong cold wind, precluded further identifications. On grassland and mud banks, Lapwing and Common Starlings fed together. A few Little Egrets were seen: these recent colonists of UK are now widespread and extending their range northwards.

Lagoons, islands and salt marsh within the Medmerry RSPB reserve (Photo: Chris Feare)

In 2014, however, the Medmerry reserve hosted another potential colonist of this country – a pair of Black-winged Stilts successfully fledged three chicks. As the habitats within and bordering the reserve mature we can expect the reserve to provide a southern refuge for a wide variety of birds on migration, during the breeding season and throughout winter.

Canada Geese making use of an island (Photo: Chris Feare)




As sea levels continue to rise, managed retreat may become increasingly widespread as a flood prevention measure. If Medmerry is anything to go by, this strategy could benefit wildlife, perhaps even restoring some of the species lost from the UK during the era of vast land reclamation activities that have taken place over the last 500 years.

Black-winged Stilt in Spain – bred once at Medmerry, possibly a future coloniser? (Photo: Chris Feare)

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