Saving Mersea Island: Conservation plans to protect this coastal gem
PUBLISHED: 09:24 24 July 2019 | UPDATED: 10:22 24 July 2019
Mersea Island is under threat from the very waters that make it one of the county’s most treasured locations for residents and visitors. Petra Hornsby finds out more about plans being put in place to save it
A warm, bright summer's day can offer so many possibilities when planning a trip out and about. Across the county of Essex, there are many wonderful places to visit of both historical and cultural interest as well as an almost endless choice of parks, nature reserves and waterways to explore.
The county's coastline is also full of charm, character and beauty with one fine example of this being Mersea Island, situated southeast of Colchester in both the Blackwater and Colne estuaries. A sought-after location for house buyers and a much-loved destination for day trippers and holiday makers, this island is facing a challenge from its waters that could have a devastating effect on its future.
Mersea Island is simply divided into east and west; the east being largely agricultural with housing, popular holiday parks and campsites as well as Cudmore Grove Country Park, while the west has more of a small town feel with shops, cafes and restaurants.
There are some lovely walks to be enjoyed on the east part of the island, but just as popular is the west island where people can enjoy fresh fish and seafood, watch the boats and drop their crabbing lines off the jetty which sits in the harbour.
There are two sailing clubs on the island, the West Mersea Yacht Club and Dabchicks Sailing Club, and every year locals organise a great regatta week full of exciting races and family fun. The island's marina is full of sailing boats of various sizes and the clinking of the halyards on the masts along with the sight of sailing essentials in the chandlery is a reminder of the island's relationship with the sea beyond the estuaries.
Mersea also has a proud fishing industry and oyster farms that go back to Roman times. Mersea Island Fresh Catch sends boats out daily and sells the catch of the day down by the harbour to keen customers wanting fish as fresh as it can be. The Colchester Oyster (farmed by Colchester Oyster Fishery) is a great local food that is renowned both nationally and internationally.
However, much of this idyllic picture could all be literally washed away as the effects of climate change and higher sea temperatures result in rising tides and increased stormy weather. The island has been protected by three natural saltmarshes: Cobmarsh, Old Hall Point and The Packing Shed, but, as sea levels rise and tidal surges strengthen, these natural defences will be washed away, exposing the harbour and waterfront to the might of the sea.
This is likely to signal the end of oyster farming, lead to the flooding of Old Hall RSPB bird reserve and mean that the mud flats would wash away and fill in the creeks, making the waters too shallow for certain vessels. The jetty would be unable to withstand the strength of the tides and properties close to the water's edge would also be in danger.
In the face of this significant threat, the The Mersea Harbour Protection Trust has become the driving force to inform locals and the wider community about the imminent dangers the island is facing and to devise a plan to help protect and enhance the very features that make Mersea so special.
One volunteer and island resident is Mark Dixon. Mark sits on the committee and explains: "We have known about this problem for some time and after Cobmarsh lost four metres after a storm in 2013, it was clear something needed to be done.
The trust was formed three years ago and, thanks to some work that had been carried out by the Environment Agency but not completed between 1998 and 2002, we had some idea of what was needed."
Mark has experience in his work in flood defences, soft engineering and the use of natural protection schemes. "We are confident that natural material such as sand, shell and stone added to exposed sites will strengthen these areas and act as barriers.
The difference this time is that we will be transporting a significant quantity of material to be placed at the chosen sites which will work as protection for the harbour and marine life, but form natural environments for birdlife and plants too."
So where will the material come from and how long will the project take?
"Ears to the ground heard that the port of Harwich was intending to carry out dredging work to make the channels deeper for bigger vessels to access the port.
"We were able to approach the port's management to agree a good deal on the material being excavated and arrange for it to be taken by dredger to our chosen sites, where it will be pumped out to form wraparound, natural beaches and be harder to wash away - unlike the delicate salt marsh and mudflats.
"We are tied into waiting until the Harwich Haven Authority decide to undertake their project, but we anticipate this will be between 2019 and 2023. It is expected to take around eight weeks to complete with two cargoes, one in each tide, making its way to us with the dredged material.
"The whole of the island community has engaged with us on this and can see the very real threat. We consulted with them fully and held presentations in the local museum where people were invited to raise concerns and objections.
"The whole project is expected to cost in excess of £350,000, of which £80,000 has already been raised, and is based on the assumption we will be charged a nominal fee for the material, of which we require about 150,000 tonnes.
"This sum will include £50,000 to be used for monitoring schemes after the material has been placed. We have had generous support from the lottery, charities and the Environment Agency. We are also hoping that our initiative will include providing a haven for the endangered little tern by providing new, safe beaches and the RSPB has offered us its full backing."
Sadly, the inevitability of climate change and its effects can't be stemmed forever, however successful this project is, and, eventually, the might of the tide will have its way.
But this initiative will buy some more time for Mersea Island, meaning future generations of residents and all of those who visit can continue to enjoy all its very special charms.