Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
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Estuaries in bid for special conservation status

Estuaries in bid for special conservation status

DEPARTMENT FOR ENVIRONMENT, FOOD AND RURAL AFFAIRS News Release (281/07) issued by The Government News Network on 31 August 2007

Three estuaries - the Dee, Humber and Severn - have been earmarked by the government as Special Areas of Conservation (SACs) to protect vulnerable wildlife and habitats.

Defra has written to the European Commission to seek SAC status for the three candidate sites, to add to the UK's 611 SACs covering just over two and a half million hectares. This is part of a long-running process of designation of UK conservation areas under the EU Habitats Directive.

The Severn Estuary has been selected as one of the best areas in the UK for mudflats, sand flats and Atlantic salt meadows. The estuary is also an important area for migratory fish and as a nursery for juvenile fish of many species.

The Dee Estuary supports extensive areas of salt marsh and has the fifth largest extent of mudflats and sand flats of any estuary in the UK. It includes a dune system along the north-east coast of Wales which supports a rich variety of plants, including the rare petalwort. The estuary is also important for a number of migratory fish species.

The Humber Estuary is the largest British coastal plain estuary on the North Sea coast, and drains one fifth of England. The subtidal and intertidal habitats, fringing salt marsh and reedbeds provide a valuable resource for a large number of rare or threatened mammals, fish and plants.

The Sustainable Development Commission is due to report in the autumn on the potential for utilising tidal power to generate electricity both in the Severn and elsewhere. SAC designation would not rule out tidal power development, including in the Severn Estuary, in appropriate circumstances. The Government is ready to consider carefully proposals for a Severn Barrage and other tidal power developments.

In the light of this Defra and the Welsh Assembly Government have drawn the European Commission's attention to the potential of the Severn Estuary to contribute towards emissions reduction and renewable energy targets. We have also pointed out that these proposals could significantly alter the ecological characteristics of the Estuary and raise issues regarding the balance between habitat protection and tackling the wider problems caused by global warming. We are discussing this balance with the EU Commission.

Biodiversity Minister Joan Ruddock said:

"In submitting these sites the Government has demonstrated its commitment to the protection and restoration of the UK's richly diverse, and internationally important, wildlife habitats. We will work towards ensuring that our environmental protection agenda and our aim to develop renewable sources of power are complementary."

NOTES FOR EDITORS

1. The Habitats Directive (Council Directive 92/43/EEC of 21 May 1992) requires each Member State to submit a list of cSACs to the Commission to make up a network of high-quality conservation sites known as Natura 2000. This network consists of SACs and Special Protection Areas (SPAs) established to protect wild birds under the Birds Directive (Council Directive 79/409/EEC of 2 April 1979). The Natura 2000 network is internationally recognised as forming part of the global effort to conserve biodiversity.

2. Candidate SACs (cSACs) are sites that have been submitted to the European Commission, but not yet formally adopted as Sites of Community Importance (SCIs). Once cSACs are adopted by the Commission Member States are obliged, under Article 4 of the Habitats Directive, to designate SCIs within their territory as SACs as soon as possible. Candidate sites are protected as though they were adopted by the Commission and designated by the Secretary of State as SACs.

3. Designation does not rule out the possibility of future development. If the damaging effects of a proposed development cannot be mitigated, or avoided by using an alternative solution, it may still be permitted on grounds of overriding public interest (OPI) in certain circumstances. Should any such OPI project come forward the Commission would need to be satisfied that the overall coherence of the Natura 2000 network was protected.

4. The legal requirements relating to the designation and management of cSACs in England, Scotland and Wales are set out in the Conservation (Natural Habitats, &c.) Regulations 1994 (as amended). The majority of cSACs are also Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs).

Severn Estuary

The Severn Estuary is one of the largest estuaries in the UK. The estuary's classic funnel shape, unique in the UK, helps give it the second highest tidal range in the world at more than 12 metres. Although the high sediment levels in the Severn Estuary make it hostile to fish (which need higher oxygen levels) and most marine plants (which need sunlight to photosynthesise), this results in a range of terrestrial and aquatic habitats composed of plants and animals typical of the extreme conditions of strong flows, mobile sediments, changing salinity and turbid waters. Between autumn and spring, abundant ragworms, lugworms and other species buried in the soft sediments form an important food source for thousands of over-wintering and migratory birds. The estuary is also an important area for migratory fish, such as river and sea lamprey and twaite shad, and as a nursery for juvenile fish of many species. While the fringes of the estuary provide one of the best areas in the UK for Atlantic salt meadows, the estuary also contains areas of species poor sub-tidal sandbanks and invertebrate reefs.

The Severn Estuary is therefore important for the characteristics of the estuary as a whole, certain habitat types and certain species associated with those habitats, most notably wintering and migratory birds, migratory fish and invertebrate reefs.

Dee Estuary
The Dee Estuary is the sixth largest estuary in the UK. It contains extensive areas of salt marsh, much of which is ungrazed. On low spring tides, over ninety percent of the estuary dries out, exposing the fifth largest extent of mudflats and sand flats of any estuary in the UK, containing many invertebrates, including worms, shellfish (e.g. cockles) and shrimp-like amphipods. These provide a rich source of food for birds and fish. The estuary also provides habitat for migratory fish species, which spend their lives in the sea and spawn in the River Dee. The site also includes areas of a once extensive dune system along the north east coast of Wales. The dune areas support rich variety of plants, including the rare petalwort. The sandstone cliffs of the Hilbre Islands support sea cliff vegetation.

Humber Estuary
The Humber Estuary is the largest British coastal plain estuary on the North Sea coast, and drains one fifth of England. It is one of the finest examples of an estuary of its type and is ranked as one of the top six sites in the UK for its waterfowl population, whilst its subtidal and intertidal habitats, fringing salt marsh and reedbeds provide a valuable resource for a large number of rare or threatened mammals, fish and plants.

Defra has also today confirmed extensions to the existing Humber Flats Marshes and Coast (Phase 1) Special Protection Area and Ramsar site made under the provisions of the Birds Directive and the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands of International Importance.

These sites have been extended to incorporate additional land and have been renamed as the Humber Estuary Special Protection Area and Ramsar site accordingly. The estuary comprises extensive wetland and coastal habitats including reedbeds, mature and developing salt marsh, grazing marsh, low sand dunes, marshy slacks and brackish pools. The estuary supports important numbers of waterbirds (especially geese, ducks and waders) during the migration periods and in winter. In summer, it supports important breeding populations of bittern, marsh harrier, avocet and little tern. It also supports important populations of seals, amphibians and migratory fish.

A copy of the guidance document entitled 'Special Areas of Conservation in England and how they affect you' can be found on the Natural England website via: http://www.english-nature.org.uk/Special/sac/default.htm

Further information can be found on the CCW website via:
http://www.ccw.gov.uk/landscape--wildlife/protecting-our-landscape/special-landscapes--sites/international-designated-sites/natura-2000.aspx

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