Habitat Creation Conference Report

With more than 60 habitat creation sites in place (and more in the pipeline), the UK is leading the field in this activity in Europe. That was only one of the messages from an excellent conference held in London that was organised by ABP Mer. SPS was one of the sponsors because this meeting was a logical follow on from the Saltmarsh conference that we organised some 5 years ago.

Several projects were reviewed and the general conclusions were:-

  • ·         Managed setback of flood defences had generally been cost effective in protecting property.
  • ·         Habitat creation for compensation (such as at Medmerry) takes time to deliver results, but usually does so given sufficient time
  • ·         Expected gains in habitat had generally been realised after about 3-5 years.
  • ·         Target setting tended to be qualitative but provided sensible benchmarks against which delivery would be measured.
  • ·         Engagement with the local community was an important ingredient in success.
  • ·         Land acquisition on the required scale can be tricky.
  • ·         In a period of austerity funding is in short supply.
  • ·         Monitoring of success needs to be designed to match expected timescales of Species population of the site if high costs are to be avoided.

Most of the projects reviewed were either led by the Environment Agency or were attached to specific capital projects. All involved set back to create wetland habitat. However there was consideration in later presentations of recharge schemes and the possibility of more aggressive set forward salt marsh creation projects.

One surprising presentation revealed how little is known about the way in which plants colonise newly created marsh. The limited research  that has been done is indicating that small changes in site design may result in major gains in the speed and scope of colonisation. Larger scale trials are needed.

The mood of the speakers and in subsequent discussions was positive. While some problems were identified, solutions were usually proposed.

In looking forward, DEFRA confirmed that it was trying to address regulatory barriers. (we have already commented on the proposed consents Concordat). It would also appear that Agencies such as Natural England are developing a more pragmatic and flexible approach to the provision of compensation. However, comparison with progress in Europe yet again demonstrated that the UK implementation of EU environmental legislation is more thorough than occurs in countries such as Germany.

While projects that have gone ahead appear to have been successful, some areas where habitat losses are occurring have not been addressed. One such area is the loss of salt marsh in the Solent This was raised in discussion both by Lymington Harbour Commissioners, and by us (Solent Protection Society).

Despite the availability of large quantities of dredged material from the Capital projects to deepen the approaches to both Southampton and Portsmouth, no recharge or habitat creation projects have been proposed. In the Southampton case, the consent process has taken more than six years so there has been plenty of opportunity to develop ideas. We are aware that some of the material may be unsuitable for conventional recharge, but that cannot be true of it all. Whether the problem is

  • ·         lack of imagination,
  • ·         fear of adverse impact on the Solent SAC (with consequent risk of judicial review),
  • ·         ‘silo’ mentality between agencies,

               or other extraneous factors, the fact remains that Solent Saltmarsh is disappearing quickly. Within a few years the protection in front of Lymington and other places such as Keyhaven will be lost. There has to be a case for bold action, and maybe some experimentation. Protection of Saltmarsh has both ecological and human benefit.

Perhaps the resource and effort that has been put into Medmerry has deflected attention from the important matter of trying to protect what we still have.

 It is exciting to report that at the end of the conference a proposal was made by ABP Mer that interested parties, including the main dredging contractor, and SPS, should meet in the New Year to see if anything can be done to address the problem.

Time prevented some other related issues from being raised. Only the briefest reference was made to Biodiversity Offsetting, a new concept emerging from the recently formed Natural Capital committee. Also mentioned only in passing was the issue of ‘habitat banking’. In general a developer cannot claim compensation arising from a habitat creation project completed prior to the project requiring compensation. This motivates developers to purchase potential compensation sites and keep them in the worst environmental condition until needed. That is a perverse incentive. Little or no progress has been made on this problem with respect to private sector developers. But it would appear that the Medmerry project is in fact habitat banking to offset public works in the Solent area. Perhaps that could be explored at a future conference.

Overall, this meeting was a considerable success.