More on: Chris Packham video leads furious protest over river estuary work

Vegetation and tree clearance work at a project that will return a Devon estuary and floodplain to a more natural condition has been postponed after campaigners were left furious over the impact it would have on nesting birds.

Daniel Clark www.devonlive.com 

Wildlife TV presenter Chris Packham led the campaign after highlighting the issue in a video on Twitter that has been viewed over 35,000 times.

The project, that was set to begin on Tuesday, would have seen the removal of vegetation on the River Otter estuary, which would be essential for the success of the project and the restoration of an intertidal landscape which will become home to many new species.

But following the protests, the Environment Agency has said the start of work has been reviewed, and landowners Clinton Devon Estates have confirmed the work will be postponed.

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 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.

Chris Packham

Chris Packham (Image: BBC)

In a statement, Clinton Devon Estates said: “Following consultation with our partners and other environmental organisations over risks to nesting birds, the start of vegetation clearance work in preparation for the Lower Otter Restoration Project has been postponed.

“Any works in the future will be undertaken on the basis that they will not have a risk of impacting breeding birds.

“The purpose of this vital project has always been to work with nature to achieve a more sustainable way of managing the Otter Estuary and its immediate surroundings, and we are committed to ensuring this continues to be a priority.”

An Environment Agency spokesman added that the delay had been agreed so ‘that timings reflect the balance of ecological risks’.

They added: “Vegetation and tree clearance is one of the first elements in advance of starting earthworks and construction work on the project. The period in which vegetation clearance could be carried out has been dictated by ecological factors, the period in which dormice can be sensitively displaced under licence, and external funding factors. We sought to manage risks associated with nesting birds through the development of clearance procedures directed and controlled by ecologists.

“However, following consultation with our partners and other environmental organisations over risks to nesting birds, the start of vegetation clearance work has been postponed. Any works which are undertaken in the future will be on the basis that they will not impact breeding birds. The purpose of this vital project has always been to work with nature to achieve a more sustainable way of managing the Otter Estuary and its immediate surroundings, and we are committed to ensuring this continues to be a priority.”

In his video post on Twitter, Packham said: “Workers were to turn up and destroy an area of scrub which is home to schedule one species. It is the breeding season as they are likely to have nests and eggs and young and we know that they are protected and you can’t destroy them.

“The EA say they have to do the work now because they cannot do it after June because of dormice on site. The bigger picture is that when the work is completed, it will generate a very rare and valuable piece of coastal habitat so the outcome could be good, but you cannot just start destroying bird’s nests when they are protected, so what sort of signal is this sending out to developer’s elsewhere.

“Come on EA, wake up. You have to do your duty on our behalf and you are meant to look after our environment and the species that live there as next time it may not be a project with a good ecological outcome. Please think again.”

In a statement outlining the project of the LORP website, it had been said that the vegetation and tree clearance was due to start on May 4 and construction phasing and project funding deadlines dictate the timing, which is further constrained by the period allowed under the necessary dormouse licence.

Ecologists were due to accompany each clearance team and where nesting birds or signs of bats are found these places will be protected, and the birds left to rear their chicks, with buffer zones around nests.

All work was due to have been informed by wildlife surveys with ecological impacts assessed by independent ecologists and being completed in accordance with the Environmental Statement, which was an important part of planning, as the work was being undertaken with the full knowledge and support of Natural England.

The statement added: “Although we know the timing of vegetation clearance for May is not ideal for birds this is constrained by the presence of dormice (a European protected species) and the need to carry out the works in the short period allowed by the licence required (as well as construction phasing and project funding deadlines).

“Before vegetation is cleared, experienced ecologists will carefully search for nesting birds and sites used by bats. Where these are found they will be left undisturbed, with a buffer zone to ensure protection. Qualified ecologists have already carried out pre-clearance surveys and will continue to do so before and during works.

“The scheme will create over 55 hectares of rare inter-tidal habitat including mudflat and saltmarsh. However, it will result in the removal of 0.7 ha of broadleaf semi-natural woodland, 34 mature trees and 2.5km of hedgerow. Where woodland, hedgerow and tree habitats are removed these will be replaced in the lower Otter Valley outside of the project area resulting in a habitat gain of just over two hectares of broadleaf woodland and 1.5km of hedgerow. All vegetation clearance methods will follow best recognised practice to ensure that disturbance to wildlife is minimised with all necessary protected species licences in place.”

But the project has now been delayed, with no date yet confirmed for when the vegetation clearance will begin.

When complete, the flood plains project is expected to create 55 hectares (136 acres) of wildlife habitat on the river, estuary and floodplain.