A wild belt to protect the coast

Over the past 12 month’s we’ve seen an increase in dialogue about climate change and some of the actions we need to take to address this global issue. This has in part been a result of the G7 Summit held in Cornwall last summer and subsequently the COP 26 Climate Change Conference in Glasgow in November, both shining a light on the UK Government’s policies to mitigate the worst impacts and reduce future greenhouse gas emissions.

The canary in the coal mine

The South West Coast Path is the canary in the coal mine when it comes to seeing the impacts of climate change. The increasing severity and frequency of storms is taking its toll on vulnerable cliffs. Because of our geography, it doesn’t matter which direction a storm comes from – some part of the Coast Path will be impacted. This February three named storms affected the UK within the space of a week, the first time this has occurred since storm naming was introduced in 2015. To-date we’ve only seen around 20cm of sea level rise on the SW Coast. Even if we stop the growth in greenhouse gas emissions today the sea level will continue to rise over years.

Coastal erosion

We’re also seeing more extreme weather events, with heavy downpours creating localised erosion. Our seasonal cutting back of vegetation along the route of the National Trail is also impacted by milder winters and hotter summers extending the growing season. These subtle warming changes are also allowing new species to thrive where previously not possible, unfortunately this includes fungi responsible for tree diseases such as Ash Dieback and Phytophthora.

Photo by James Loveridge, Jurassic Coast.

Managing the National Trail through the impact of change

We need to plan how we manage the National Trail and better understand the impacts of all these changes on the Coast Path and how we ensure it remains for future generations. The good news is that there are already many stakeholders such as Local Authorities, the Environment Agency and Plymouth Coastal Observatory working to manage and protect the coastline in the South West. We also have a broad policy framework to co-ordinate activity. Shoreline Management Plans zone the coast into four intervention types: Hold the Line, Advance the Line, Managed Realignment and No Active Intervention. This helps identify areas where investment is needed to protect infrastructure and other areas where more natural systems can be employed to manage coastal change.

The Marine and Coastal Access Act designates a coastal margin

The Marine and Coastal Access Act is being used by Natural England to designate the England Coast Path. This legislation also introduces the power to roll-back the route of the National Trail when impacted by events such as coastal erosion – reducing the administration and costs when diverting the Path. The 2009 Act also designates a Coastal Margin between the National Trail and the land seaward of the Trail.

Wild flower walk near Carnewas heading toward Bedruthan Steps, North Cornwall. Photo by Roy Curtis.

This Margin gives new open access rights along our coast albeit there are exceptions such as gardens, nature sites sensitive to disturbance, and Ministry of Defence land. There is a great opportunity for increasing the resilience of the Coast Path by developing this Coastal Margin as a Wild Belt along our shoreline. We have the advantage of the mapping already undertaken by Natural England. Our challenge is to see if we can direct biodiversity net-gain and progressive agri-environment schemes to help us get maximum benefit from the Coastal Margin and mitigate against the worst impacts of climate change.

Author: Julian Gray, Director, South West Coast Path Association

Header image: Pony at Countisbury Hill, Exmoor. Photo by Sophie Brown.

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