Otter Restoration project: Stop the Swamp, or future proof against climate change?

Two reports in today’s press show that the Otter Restoration Project is proving to be highly controversial.

From today’s Western Morning News:

ENVIRONMENT: A major floodplain restoration project has come up against opposition from campaigners who argue green landscape will be lost to mudflats amid two years of disruptive works. Philip Bowern reports.

A PLAN to ‘restore’ the lower reaches of Devon’s River Otter (pictured above by Helen Dart) by breaking through flood barriers and allowing a flood plain to develop has come in for opposition from a group fighting the move.

East Devon district council is considering an application presented by the Environment Agency for the Lower Otter Restoration Project. The applicants say they are working with local people and partner organisations, including Clinton Devon Estates, to “adapt and improve the downstream part of the River Otter, its estuary and its immediate surroundings for future generations.”

The scheme, which reconnects the river to its floodplain, will create what the applicants say is an increased area washed by the tides and bring “significant biodiversity benefits.” The Environment Agency says it believes the scheme will compensate for lost areas of inter-tidal habitat in other coastal sites, like the Exe estuary, which have been “squeezed” due to increased development at the coast and the building of coastal defences.

But a group of local people are opposing the plans. They have formed a campaign group called Stop the Otter Swamp and are calling on others to object to the proposals to East Devon council before the advertised deadline for comments on Friday November 13. In their leaflets they warn the proposals will bring about major unwanted changes.

They say: “Residents were taken by surprise when a planning application was lodged at the end of September quite unlike previous proposals, including major construction works in a huge area of land. Few people were informed about it, and most are still completely unaware of a proposal which is of widespread significance.”

The application covers 151 hectares of land in the parishes of East Budleigh, Budleigh Salterton and Otterton, stretching from the Lime Kiln Car Park to an area south of Frogmore House in the the Lower Otter Valley.

Part of the plan would relocate the Budleigh Salterton cricket club away from its current flood-prone site and also, the applicants say, secure the livelihoods of tenant farmers in the area as well as maintain access to South Farm.

But the protesters claim: “If approved, it will destroy the Otter Valley as we know it forever. The green landscape will be replaced by mud flats; trees will be felled; wildlife species such as owls, otters, bats and beavers will be lost and the nature reserve will be disturbed by major building works lasting at least two years.”

The original plan for the changes, which date back three years to 2017, came from landowners the Clinton Devon Estate. The Environment Agency backed the proposals because it has a statutory need to compensate for the loss of mud flats on the nearby Exe estuary.

In a summary of the proposals the applicants say: “The natural environment of the Otter estuary has, for hundreds of years, been modified by humans. These changes have led to a disruption of natural processes with the river no longer able to adapt and move naturally across the floodplain as it once did, nor can it cope effectively with flooding events, which are more prevalent due to climate change. There is a strong argument to take action.”

They say if the plans are not approved there is a risk of further flooding of a road, continued flooding of Budleigh Salterton Cricket Club and the “catastrophic breaching of embankments.”

To comment on the plan go to the East Devon district council planning portal.

From today’s Exmouth Journal:

Act now and work with nature to future-proof our community

Kate Ponting countryside and communities officer for Clinton Estates

A stormy sky over the Otter Estuary

Walking along the South West Coast Path last week and looking at the stormy English Channel, reminded me just how much the sea has shaped our environment here in East Devon.

Two years ago, a very high tide at Budleigh Salterton contributed to the collapse of a section of the South West Coast Path. It was only thanks to the prompt work of the Environment Agency and other partners that a catastrophic breach of the embankments on the River Otter Estuary was averted.

Even so, it was still four months before the footpath could be safely reopened.

The sea is constantly changing the landscape, and climate change is speeding-up those changes so we’ll all have to prepare ourselves for more stormy weather and rising sea levels.

Unless we act soon, nature will certainly breach the man-made embankments of the lower River Otter and the Otter Estuary; eroding the footpath, flooding the cricket club, threatening access to homes and businesses and exposing an old municipal tip.

The Lower Otter Restoration Project, a partnership which includes the Pebblebed Heaths Conservation Trust, has come up with a solution to this problem.

It will mean raising South Farm Road and building a new road bridge to protect access to the area, working to save the South West Coast Path, protecting the redundant tip and relocating the cricket club. It will also recreate a rare wetland habitat which will provide a home for many threatened and endangered species.

Thanks to a time-limited funding package from the EU’s Interreg programme, we have a small window of opportunity to realign the Lower Otter and the Otter Estuary with its natural floodplain through a carefully managed programme of work.

Change will come to the lower Otter valley, the sea and the climate will see to that.

We have two alternatives: do nothing and accept we will have to deal with whatever the changes bring, or act now and work with nature to future-proof our community and protect a much-loved amenity

8 thoughts on “Otter Restoration project: Stop the Swamp, or future proof against climate change?

  1. This Budleigh correspondent is very deeply worried at the future of our beloved estuary. There is also, unhappily, so much division in the town.
    All I ask the objectors to the scheme is “WHAT ARE YOUR PLANS FOR WHEN THE EARTH BANKS BREACH AGAIN?”I see in all the 190 or so objections on the planning portal no one addresses this question. The banks have gone twice in the last decade and walkers know that last time it was the Environment Agencies pumps, deployed at speed at the one-way sluice, that saved the day. The EA will not “save the day” again. The local authority and Clinton Devon Estates have not got that sort of resource.

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  2. Brief comments follow (based on fairly wide conservation experience):

    1. This project needs much more calm, rational & informed discussion – am NOT in favour of it as currently presented. Some degree of Climate Change is sadly now a ‘given’, so there is bound to be some sea level rise and more ‘run-off’ from heavy rain storms. However addressing run off (which the new Beaver population are also helping with in a small way upstream!) generally requires examining conditions in the Catchment Area – which I think is the Blackdown Hills.

    2. Wildlife habitat in the west side of the lower Otter Valley would gradually extend itself through natural ‘stages of succession’ if just left undisturbed without cattle grazing. However it would be necessary to preserve the 2 existing ‘scrapes’, which are a success story., and the colour of that part of the estuary would no longer be the light green of livestock pasture – this observation especially for those concerned with landscape vistas.

    3. The BS cricket club has been vulnerable to flooding for many years, so a move to a different site might be appropriate, but it is a very good institution & its interests must be well looked after.

    4. Whatever the outcome of this project, something EDDC need to do is actively discourage activities in the estuary such as Kite Surfing, Paddle Boarding, Canoeing etc, since in our small crowded island they are incompatible with any area designated as protected wildlife habitat – there is plenty of room on the sea! – or in places set aside for human sporting activity.

    Case rested, and very much hope that the current debate results in an outcome which is good both for Nature & Humanity.

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    • I’ve heard these rumours aobut water sports but fail to see how they could happen on a tidal mud flat. Can you elaborate. I see no mention of them in the plans?

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  3. In response- this argument has been used quite a bit in support of the scheme but is fallacious.
    A lot of people are trying to defend egos of their mates, neighbours or much worse we think, have big Conflicts of business interest ( CDE boss sits on the Env Agency board actually ) within this 140 plus page documented scheme which could actually make our flooding risks much worse locally. .

    It’s being rushed through in a pandemic with hardly any proper consultation of local residents , the majority of the council wants it rejected , and people are being told – hurry hurry or we will lose the money! ( rather shameful for something so costly and needing v serious consideration !) And the name rewilding is just a clever branding exercise. Disingenuous as to true intent.

    And now also we have again the attempt at panic induction : ‘there’s no other scheme , use it or lose it all! ‘ However more moderate schemes available have not been properly proposed Or risk assessed , nor has this one. New schemes are also now emerging if the true intent is as they say – coastal erosion mitigation.

    We can easily wait a little longer to sort this. We should.

    And very unfortunately for us this scheme mostly serves the purposes of Clinton Devon Estates/ sacrificial strategies of Env Agrncy at huge cost to the taxpayer but has very little clear benefit and a definite huge negative effect on the whole town of Budleigh , So our town’s identity which is intimately linked with our peaceful mature richly diverse habitat ( -a gem within Devon and adored as an existant Nature Reserve ) are to be bulldozered away? For a few more birds species ( minus the ancient trees , birds and mammals we lose as well as the minus of the severe pollution and destruction of actually doing the scheme and the decade long of settlement ) – and really all motivates by an ‘offset’ from the Exe and £££ for those doing the scheme..
    Patronising arguments of ‘emotionality‘ are being used and most recently we see an import of a huge mailing list of supporters onto the planning site – these are amongst the tactics being used to get the scheme through however possible. This is probably In response to a growing number of objectors with good arguments as to ‘no’. Wrong project, wrong time and indeed wrong place. .

    People are genuinely horrified about this. The horror is indeed emotion based. We care about our town our traditional green spaces and sustaining our futures!

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  4. How about they clean the toxic chemicals from the river otter before spending millions of pounds utterly disrupting the happy wildlife we locals enjoy

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  5. The Otter Restoration Project has not been sprung on the local community overnight. There has been surprisingly open and exhaustive local “engagement” through exhibitions and working groups over a number of years and the project has its own informative website.

    I can understand the emotion lying behind the “Save the Swamp” campaign but underneath all the rhetoric this campaign ducks the issue of climate change and what happens when the next breach occurs in the 200 year old Otter Banks.

    Climate change and sustainability are issues the Planning Committee will have to consider.

    Here is the supporting comment I submitted to EDDC yesterday, posted on the planning portal today:

    “I write to support 20/2089/MFUL, the Lower Otter Restoration Project.

    That is not say that I will find the transition easy. The scenery, familiar to me all my life, will change dramatically, one habitat will be lost but another gained. The transition process will be disruptive.

    It confronts us, in East Devon, with the uncomfortable reality of climate change perhaps rather earlier and more abruptly than most of us would have wished.

    As the environment agency summarises: Although much loved, the Lower Otter Valley has been heavily modified by human hand in the last 200 years with the construction of an embankment, a road, a rubbish tip, an aqueduct and an old railway line. These structures are difficult and expensive to maintain and restrict natural processes including the movement of water. This reduces habitat quality and diversity. Since the creation of an embankment in the early 19th century, the River Otter has been disconnected from much of its original floodplain.

    The choice we face is take to the easy route and do nothing. In this case, at some time in the not too distant future, during a storm surge or through flooding in the Otter Valley, which are all intensifying due to climate change, the artificial earth banks constructed in the early nineteenth century will be breached yet again. At this point, under current policies, nature would be allowed to take its course; almost certainly leading, through subsequent erosion, to the complete loss of the footpath connecting the Lime Kiln car park to White Bridge; and South Farm Road would become tidal.

    Better, in my opinion, to pre-empt this event and manage change in a considered and controlled way such as is proposed.
    There are three important gains that offset all the losses: the river will be reconnected through its original floodplain to the sea, meaning that the river will be able to discharge upstream flooding more efficiently rather than acting as a dam; water quality will be improved; and more threatened habitat (salt-marsh estuary) will be created.

    There are a number of wild rumours circulating abroad. This is disappointing in the light of the extensive consultation process that has taken place over many years. One in particular has it that the pebble bar, or spit, leading to “Donkeys’ Turn” (referring to Victorian Donkey Carts used by the likes of historian Maria Gibbons) will be swept away. The bar itself, as with all East Devon estuaries, has been formed over centuries and is maintained by the process of “eastward longshore drift” of beach materials, driven by prevailing wind and tidal movements. The Otter bar is shown as a prominent occluding feature of the river mouth in charts drawn up 500 years ago in Tudor times when the estuary was free flowing. Contrary to local myths, it didn’t appear overnight and won’t be swept away overnight. The proposal, quite rightly, is to leave the river mouth to evolve a natural equilibrium.

    The Devon County Archaeologist, Bill Horner, has located the sites of the known historic harbours, havens, quays and docks that have been used in the Lower Otter before the embankments were constructed. Can I ask that a programme of archaeological mitigation is carried out before the sites are further disturbed to see if we can learn any more about them, using modern techniques?”

    To return: we experienced major civil engineering disturbance in the early 1980s when the sewage, instead of being discharged out to sea, was collected in a massive tank constructed under half of the Lime Kiln car park and a new trunk sewer laid under the western bank headed towards the Exmouth treatment works, for the most part routed along the disused railway track. Traces of this are now hard to find.

    The campaign does not mention the impending FAB interconnector project. This is likely to cause even more disruption as horizontal drilling is used to pick-up the cables out at sea, bring them ashore in the Lime Kiln car park and route them along the western bank to Kersbrook and thence to the road finally heading towards the airport. This project has now slipped with an indeterminate starting date but, being a nationally significant infrastructure project, has a special route through the planning process.

    It is likely that some aspects of FAB will have to be incorporated into LORP.

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    • Thank you David for your support of this project. Nobody likes change, nor construction close to where you live, but without this well planned “managed realignment” nature will eventually return the estuary to how it was before the French prisoners of war built the dykes that for Lord Rolle during the Napoleonic War.

      Who is this mis-informed group “Stop the Otter Swamp” claiming back door semi-urbanisation a dubious rewilding scheme, a loss of of precious habitat, tidal waters over pathways etc etc.

      Where has this group been for the last 5 years whilst the proposals for the scheme have been discussed at very many Parish and Town meetings, many meetings of a steering group with many local contributors and groups and open public meetings.

      The choice is simple allow nature to return the estuary to per Napoleonic times, allow South Farm road to go, allow the old Budleigh rubbish tip to leach into the estuary, loose the footpaths along the dykes and loss the cricket ground, or use the £8.5M of European funds, loose the funding from Habitat mitigation to be spent elsewhere in the UK, or use the funding that is promised to carry out this managed retreat, that will preserve the footpaths, protects the leaching of the old tip, provide a new home for the cricket club and raise the South Farm Road above the floodplain.

      The Lower Otter is a manmade artificial landscape and this scheme is simply helping nature to correct what we now understand was mistake. So let’s not make another mistake and loss the chance to put back what nature intended.

      To stop the LORP project will be yet another mistake, so please ignore the “StoptheOtterSwamp”

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