Work starts on ambitious wetland project in Somerset

A 400-hectare nature reserve comprising saltmarsh, lagoons, reedbeds and ponds is to be created on the Steart Peninsula, near Bridgwater, Somerset

The new wetlands will be one of the largest in the UK and will dramatically improve the area for wildlife according to the Environment Agency, which was granted planning permission in March 2012.

Extensive new breeding and feeding areas will be created for wildfowl and waders, such as dunlin, redshank and shelduck, while new nursery areas for fish will benefit species such as sea bass. The wetlands will also provide homes for other threatened species, such as the water vole and great crested newt.

Additionally, by dispersing wave energy and reducing erosion rates, the wetland will act as a natural defence against coastal flooding.

The plans include improved access arrangements for disabled people, cyclists, walkers, bird-watchers and horse-riders. Wildlife observation hides, car parks and public toilets will be built and new flood defences will be installed on the River Parrett to protect the village of Steart and the only road on the peninsula, Stert Drove.

The project is being undertaken to compensate for the impending loss of existing wetland, which is predicted to occur elsewhere in the Severn Estuary as a result of rising sea levels and the construction of new flood defence schemes.

The site will be owned by the Environment Agency and managed by the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust (WWT). Although the £20m scheme has been described as a waste of public money by Ian Liddell-Grainger, MP for Bridgwater, according to the Environment Agency local people have been involved throughout the consultation period and have largely responded positively to it.

“We have been included in discussions every step of the way and although this is a habitat creation scheme, some issues are an absolute priority to us – the safety of our homes now and into the future, the access to the village and the preservation of the tranquillity of the peninsula,” said Dick Best from the Steart Residents Group.

“We have this opportunity to create a productive and useful landscape,” added WWT chief executive, Martin Spray. “We’re developing a dynamic new approach to land management at Steart and aim to show how it can be used to create similar wetland habitats elsewhere.”

Archaeological investigations, vegetation clearance and other works have already been undertaken at the site in preparation for construction of new flood defences and excavation of a creek network. Native plants will be introduced to freshwater areas and species-rich hedgerows will be planted.

The most dramatic changes will occur when existing shingle defences are breached in 2013. Then, the sea will reclaim the low-lying arable land of the Steart Peninsula and gradually, as environmental conditions change, characteristic wetland plants will replace the existing vegetation.

Eventually the reserve, which will require minimal long-term management from WWT, will be grazed and become productive agricultural land once more.

In a separate but complementary scheme, The Bristol Port Company is proposing to create an additional 135 hectares of wetland on adjacent land. This is intended to offset the loss of intertidal habitats that will occur when a new deep-sea container terminal is built at Avonmouth.