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The hidden secrets of the Somerset coastline

PUBLISHED: 16:31 11 February 2019

Sunset at Lilstock (c) Nick Pound

Sunset at Lilstock (c) Nick Pound

Nick Pound

Kirby Everett from Somerset Wildlife Trust reveals the hidden secrets of the county's unique coastline, and explains why the fight is on to protect it

Can you do something for me? Ask the next person you see what they can tell you about Somerset’s coast. It’s quite likely they will either stop to wonder if Somerset actually has one, or offer a vague description of a nuclear power station sandwiched between holiday parks, with not a lot in between. It’s certainly fair to say that our Devon and Cornwall neighbours take the lion’s share of the coastal spotlight. But take the time to look more carefully and you’ll find a wealth of natural treasures just waiting to be uncovered.

At a remarkable 73km long, Somerset’s coast is a place of amazing contrast; diverse, wild habitats and awe-inspiring places are home to a wealth of captivating species, all connected by a backbone of world class geology and a fascinating, yet lesser told, history and heritage.

A nudibranch glides over a red sponge (c) Alexander Mustard/2020VISIONA nudibranch glides over a red sponge (c) Alexander Mustard/2020VISION

It has boulder beds, shingle banks, salt marshes, sea caves, sand flats, sand dunes, mudflats, reefs and cliffs to rival the Jurassic coast to the south – each of them playing host to a myriad of wonderful creatures large and small that we rarely see and don’t often bother, or have the opportunity, to find.

When you think of reefs you probably imagine expanses of coral reefs usually found in the tropics, beneath crystal blue seas. Yet, did you know there are reefs present here in Somerset as well – on the lower shores of St Audries Bay and Dunster to be precise? Honeycomb reefs are formed by Sabelleria alveolar (also known as the honeycomb worm). These amazing creatures form large reefs and mounds on lower shores, providing fantastic homes for small marine species to live in and create pools which provide perfectly sheltered habitats for a variety of starfish and fish.

Evidence of the honeycomb reef worm (c) Nigel PhillipsEvidence of the honeycomb reef worm (c) Nigel Phillips

Ever heard of a nudibranch? Probably not – the term sea slug might sound more familiar. But what might not come to your mind’s eye with that description is a fabulously vibrant violet creature. Edmundsella pedata - the star of Somerset’s first ever coastal survey – has been found by our coastal team living in shallow water at Bossington Beach and Porlock Weir, but it had not previously been recorded in Somerset. It easily rivals the beauty of those you might find in more exotic locations. These are just two out of a whole cacophony of amazing and beguiling species that can be found hiding in our waters, alongside a year round variety of wonderful resident and migrating birds, seals, dolphins, eels and fish.

In some ways, our coast is fortunate - it has a number of national and international protection designations for example. But despite these, our coastline remains under pressure from residential and tourism-based development and the need for coastal flood defences to name two – all compounded by the accelerating changes in our climate and more extreme weather events. And it is the complexity and range of habitats combined with its compulsory role as the ‘frontline’ defence for our land, which is making it incredibly vulnerable.

A lesser spotted catshark (c) Alexander Mustard/2020VISIONA lesser spotted catshark (c) Alexander Mustard/2020VISION

Even the hardest cliffs along our coast are slowly being eroded by rising sea levels and, despite our efforts to turn back the tide with structural sea defences, our softer coast features like sand dunes, shingle ridges and saltmarshes are falling victim to the awesome power of the sea. In the case of our softer cliffs, some sections are retreating by at least two metres per year. Whilst wildlife living there will follow habitats as they retreat, where exactly do they go when they hit a man-made structure such as a holiday park or road?

Perhaps though, the biggest threat that our coast faces is the extreme lack of public awareness of its ecological importance and a lack of knowledge of the wonderful things it has to offer. Despite not owning any land on the coast, to reverse this, a few years ago Somerset Wildlife Trust created a conservation strategy that would help ensure a healthy future for this special part of our county. It has just completed its first major milestone by completing a three year coastal survey – the first ever one done for our coast – the data from which will help create an ecological map of the entire area which is critical in terms of providing the evidence to the county’s decision makers to drive better protection measures in the future. The trust has now started a three year engagement project called Somerset’s Brilliant Coast. This aims to create a deeper, more long-term connection to our special coastal places and wildlife through a variety of activities such as public guided walks and shore searches with families. It will work in partnership with local groups and schools – which in turn will contribute to improving individual wellbeing using a love of our coast to build healthy and resilient communities.

A common hermit crab with its borrowed mollusc shell (c) Alexander Mustard/2020VISIONA common hermit crab with its borrowed mollusc shell (c) Alexander Mustard/2020VISION

Did you know...?

• Coastal and marine ecosystems play a particularly valuable role in the capture and storage of atmospheric carbon dioxide, so can help mitigate climate change. Bridgwater Bay, with its extensive salt marshes, has been identified as one of the key areas within the Severn Estuary for storing carbon.

• Somerset’s sea has the highest tidal range in Europe, experiencing regular ranges up to 15m between high and low tide. On beaches at Berrow and Brean the tide can retreat by close to one mile and at Minehead and Dunster Beach it goes out by half a mile.

• There are three major estuaries used by wintering waders and wildfowl in the South West but the Severn Estuary, which is the largest example of a coastal plain estuary in the UK, blows all numbers out of the water, playing host to up to 100,000 wintering birds. No surprise therefore that it is designated as a Special Area of Conservation (SAC) under the EU Habitats Directive, a Special Protection Area (SPA) under the Birds Directive and as a Ramsar site under the Convention on Wetlands of International Importance.

• The continuous run of sand that sits in front of the dunes between Burnham and Brean, 11km, is one of the longest continuous sandflats in the UK, and the dramatic wooded cliffs between Somerset’s Porlock Weir and Foreland Point in Devon extend for nearly seven miles, making it the longest coastal woodland in England and Wales.

• The estuary is also a vast fish nursery. Ten species of fish that are of economic importance use these waters at different times in their lifecycle, either for breeding or feeding and in total, 110 fish species have been recorded there – the highest of any estuary in the UK.

Get involved

Join the trust’s coastal team for a Spring Seashore Bioblitz on Minehead beach on Saturday, March 23. Have fun exploring the coastline and, at the same time, collect vital data so that conservation groups are able to better understand how to protect our coastal landscapes for the future. Families can take part in guided walks looking for birds, butterflies, bugs and plants. Amateur naturalists can join local experts and survey teams helping identify and record particular wildlife groups.

There’s also the Living Coasts Group which meets regularly to share knowledge about all things coastal and plan events and activities such as guided walks, talks and workshops. Members help with surveying, monitoring and citizen science projects and assist with community engagement projects working with local groups, youth clubs and schools.

For more information visit somersetwildlife.org or email mark.ward@somersetwildlife.org.

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