EU-funded estuary flooding begins in Spring

Work on a landscape-scale project to address the impact of climate change by returning a Devon estuary and flood plain to a more natural condition is set to begin in the Spring.

Daniel Clark www.devonlive.com

East Devon District Council’s planning committee last Wednesday approved a pioneering project to help a river valley on England’s Jurassic Coast adapt to climate change and create an internationally important wildlife reserve.

The EU-funded Lower Otter Restoration Project (LORP) will reconnect the River Otter to its historic floodplain and return the lower Otter Valley to a more natural condition; creating more than 50 hecatres of intertidal mudflats, saltmarsh and other valuable estuarine habitats.

The success of the £15 million project rested on it being given the thumbs up by East Devon District Council, and planning approval means work on the project can start this spring and be completed by early 2023.

The Otter Estuary

The Otter Estuary (Image: REKORD Media)

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 and reduces habitat quality and diversity, and since the creation of an embankment in the early 19th Century, the River Otter has been disconnected from much of its natural flood plain.

The creation of new habitats and restoration of the site will be achieved by breaching the embankment. This will allow a much greater extent of the original floodplain to flood at high tide and drain at low tide producing important intertidal habitat, mudflats and saltmarsh for wading birds. There will also be areas of reedbed and grazing marsh.

Once established, the new site will become a wildlife reserve of international importance within five years, fulfilling the aspirations of all partners involved.

The Lower Otter valley is the subject of plans from the Environment Agency

The Lower Otter valley is the subject of plans from the Environment Agency

The LORP is a partnership between the Environment Agency, local landowner Clinton Devon Estates, and the East Devon Pebblebed Heaths Conservation Trust that currently manages the estuary. It also has the support of Natural England, RSPB and Devon Wildlife Trust.

Mark Rice, Environment Manager for the Environment Agency, said: “Climate change is affecting the way we manage our coasts and estuaries and we must adapt to that change.

“The Lower Otter Restoration Project is an example of how we can do that. We aim to deliver long term benefits for people and wildlife by working in partnership and through more sustainable management of the Otter Estuary.”

Dr Sam Bridgewater, head of wildlife and conservation at Clinton Devon Estates, said: “The Estate is proud to be associated with this project. Coastal communities must adapt as sea levels rise and storm events become more frequent.

“It is our belief the Lower Otter Restoration Project will provide a more sustainable and certain future for the threatened Otter valley. It will also deliver very significant benefits to people and wildlife.

“The granting of planning approval is a major step forward in helping us deliver this vision.

“We have worked very closely with a wide range of stakeholders who have helped us reach this milestone and we are grateful for their input over the years.”

Cllr Geoff Jung, East Devon’s cabinet member for coast, country and environment, said: “I am delighted that East Devon’s planning committee unanimously voted to allow the Lower Otter Restoration Project to go ahead.

“This council is totally committed to issues related to climate change, from purchasing electric vehicles, a national leader in recycling and waste, and working with partners and landowners to manage our valuable natural coast and countryside from the dangers of our changing climate and sea level-rises.

“We recognise that there will be some disruption, whilst the work is being carried out, but the alternative risk of allowing the embankments to fail was too greater a risk. The proposal will return the Lower Otter to a more natural sustainable state, which will provide extra wildlife habitat that is being lost both here in East Devon and elsewhere.

“We would like to thank the team at Clinton Devon Estates and the Environment Agency for their shared commitment to this exciting and pioneering project.”

The Lower Otter Estuary in Budleigh Salterton.

The Lower Otter Estuary in Budleigh Salterton. (Image: PACCo)

Budleigh and Raleigh ward members Cllr Alan Dent, Cllr Paul Jarvis and Cllr Tom Wright added: “We are all very pleased planning permission for this application has been granted. Not only will it have very important environmental gains but it will also secure the future of Budleigh Salterton Cricket Club and access along South Farm Road which is vital for those South Farm businesses.”

When the application went before councillors last week, they were told it would see the Big and Little Marsh floodplains around Budleigh Salterton restored, with breaches created in the Little Bank, the Big Bank and the River Otter Embankment to allow water to flow through.

The aim is to avoid the significant risk that a major flood or extreme tidal event could lead to catastrophic failure of the existing embankments, with unpredictable environmental and social impacts, given that in recent years, part of the South West Coast Path that runs along the embankments have been closed to the public for significant periods due to erosion caused by such events.

The committee heard that if nothing was done, then changes to the environment would likely occur, but would be unmanaged and unpredictable, and backed the officer recommendation to approve the scheme.

As part of the plans to restore the historic floodplain of the River Otter, breaches in existing embankments would be created to allow water from both the River Otter and the Estuary to inundate the site, creating intertidal saltmarsh and mudflats.

In addition, South Farm Road will be realigned and raised at a point just to the south of the existing road, and a small car park created at its western end and a new road bridge will be required, and a new footbridge to the South. Existing footpaths will be realigned and the landfill site capped and planted with grassland and woodland.

The spit to the south will be allowed to evolve naturally, necessitating the removal of the southern part of the loop path known as Donkeys Turn.

The cricket club will be moved from its current location to land off of East Budleigh Road, permission for which has already been granted under a separate planning application. Floods have left part of their current Ottermouth home under water on three occasions in the last 10 years, with a plan to relocate to Janie’s Field on the outskirts of the town having been agreed.