Exe Estuary

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The Exe Estuary is home to around 180,000 people and is an important site for wildlife, transport, tourism, recreation and commercial shellfisheries.

Within the estuary the LiCCo project aims to help local communities, businesses and organisations understand, plan and prepare for a changing coastline as a result of climate change, increasing sea level rise and erosion.  This includes working with these groups to raise awareness of the issues and to support their effective participation in decision-making process, such as the ongoing Exe Estuary Flood and Coastal Erosion Risk Management Strategy.

Site overview

The Exe Estuary is an 11km long funnel-shaped estuary, covering 3,000 hectares of diverse aquatic and terrestrial habitat on the South coast of Devon, in South West England. The city of Exeter is at the tidal limit of the estuary to the North and the resort town of Exmouth is at the seaward end of the estuary on the east bank. The estuary is home to around 180,000 people, of which 120,000 live in Exeter itself.

A sand bank, called Pole Sands and the 2km long Dawlish Warren sand spit  protect the mouth of the estuary, leaving only a narrow channel for navigation and the passage of tidal waters. The estuary has large areas of inter-tidal mudflats and is an internationally important site for habitats and birds, with a population of over 20,000 wintering wildfowl. It is designated as a Special Protection Area, Special Area of Conservation and a Ramsar site. Parts of the estuary are also designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest, National Nature Reserve and Local Nature Reserve.

The estuary is shaped by transport infrastructure, with the M5 motorway crossing the estuary to the North and the mainline railway linking Devon and Cornwall to the rest of the UK running along the western shore. In places the track bed actually acts as a flood defence, protecting properties behind it, as happens at Starcross. A single track rail branch line also runs along the eastern shore of the estuary, linkingExeter to Topsham and Exmouth and again this acts as the flood defence in places. Other important infrastructure at increasing risk from flooding includes electricity pylons and cables, a gas pipeline, an oil storage depot and a major sewage works at Countess Wear serving the city of Exeter.

Tourism contributes greatly to the local economy – the towns of Dawlish, Dawlish Warren and Exmouth all have beaches which are popular with visitors and residents alike. The Estuary provides an important local resource for recreation – it has five sailing clubs located around its shores and is also used by birdwatchers, anglers, crab collectors, kite-surfers, jet-skiers, walkers and cyclists, with a newly created access trail around its shores.

Commercial shellfisheries operate within the estuary, dependant on good water quality and protection from stormy seas. Much of the land around the estuary is grazed for beef production, with some arable and dairy farming also. Over the years many former intertidal areas have been reclaimed to create farmland, including at Exminster Marshes and in the Lower Clyst Valley. Various coastal defences have been constructed to protect land, businesses and residential property from tidal flooding, including a sea wall at Exmouth, earth embankments at Powderham, tidal gates at Lympstone and rock armour at the village of Dawlish Warren.

The Exe Estuary : Flood risk management

The South Devon and Dorset Shoreline Management Plan sets the high level, strategic policies for coastal management in the area. The Exe Estuary Flood and Coastal Erosion Risk Management Strategy sits below this and is currently being developed through a process of stakeholder engagement. This will evaluate and propose management options for locations around the estuary, in the short, medium and long term up to 2110. These recommended solutions could result in significant changes to how flood and coastal risk are currently managed.

Over the next 20 – 100 years intertidal habitats may be lost as a result of sea level rise and coastal squeeze caused by engineered ‘hard’ flood defences. Compensatory habitat will need to be created to help maintain the Exe Estuary Special Protection Area, as required under the European Habitats Directive. Identifying possible sites for habitat creation involves lengthy negotiation with potentially affected residents and landowners.

The Exe Estuary : Key Issues

Although relatively small in scale the Exe Estuary can be seen to act as a microcosm of flood risk management issues in the UK. For example, the resident population, property and infrastructure all need to be protected, strategic transport links need to be maintained, and the rich and diverse biodiversity needs to be preserved, whilst ensuring the continued recreational and amenity functions of the estuary, which underpin tourism and stimulate the local economy.

  • Dawlish Warren sand spit is a complex site. It is managed for nature conservation but has a golf course and beach facilities which attract thousands of tourists every year. It also acts as a flood defence to the inner estuary as it protects villages like Starcross and Lympstone from storm waves. However, the spit is prevented from evolving naturally because it is fixed in place by a backbone of gabions (rock filled baskets) beneath the sand dunes and groynes along the beach, which were installed by engineers in the 1960s. The popular tourist beach here is steepening as storms wash away sand. Natural processes, including longshore drift would normally bring new sand to the beach by eroding cliffs further along the coast to the west. However, the mainline railway sits at the base of these cliffs and is protected by a sea wall, so the natural supply of new sand is cut off. Because the beach is important to the local economy and is backed by a number of caravan parks, there is pressure to bring in new sand to maintain its attractiveness, and therefore, maintain tourism revenue to the area.
  • The mainline railway is protected by deteriorating flood defences at Powderham Banks and sea level rise means an increased risk of flooding here, unless significant expenditure occurs. Whilst protecting the railway these embankments only protect a handful of properties. Who pays for improvement works here continues to be an issue of national debate and importance.
  • The existence within the estuary of sites designated under the Habitats Regulations restricts future flood risk management options. Any loss of habitats caused by maintaining and improving flood defences has to be compensated for under international law by the creation of equivalent habitat elsewhere. Ideally this new habitat has to be created within the same local system and it has to be functioning before the existing habitat is lost. This results in a long lead in time for habitat creation and as there are only limited locations where this may be possible within the estuary timely negotiations with potentially affected landowners are key to achieving success. Sites in the Lower Clyst Valley, at Exminster Marshes and at The Maer, Exmouth may be suitable for habitat creation in the medium to long term if agreement can be reached between all necessary parties.

LiCCo partners for the Exe Estuary

Other key local stakeholders