Brightlingsea & its local area has become a particular coastal & estuarine study area for BNA Essex in recent years. Essex has one of the longest coastines in Britain due to its huge number of small inlets, coastal marshes in estuaries. As BNA Essex & BNA as an organisation has developed a particular attention to the location, our President was asked by the Town’s Mayor to provide the following for the Town Council:
Brightlingsea has as significant degree of legislative wildlife protection at national, European & international levels as anywhere in Britain due to its significance to the wildlife species that our estuarine coastal location supports. Brightlingsea is important for wildlife.
As a reflection of its importance a team of 17 specialist naturalists spearheaded by Professor David Bellamy & Roger Tabor for the British Naturalists’ Association for a weekend in July 2014 set out to show what am amazing diversity of habitats & species Brightlingsea hosts.
Brightlingsea has SSSI (Site of Special Scientific Interest), SPA (Special Protection Area), SAC (Special Area of Conservation), Ramsar, MCZ (Marine Conservation Zone), National Nature Reserve (NNR) designations which make it of great significance. It also has designations of Coastal Protection Belt (CPB) of importance in protecting undeveloped coastline & buffering the important SSSI site to avoid its degradation & loss of value. Brightlingsea’s ancient woodlands on Lodge Farm land have LNR classification. Farmland on Lodge Farm & other parts of Brightlingsea have been managed for a significant period to optimise conditions for wildlife & to buffer the NNR/SSSI highly significant Brightlingsea Marsh (Grazing Marsh).
The Colne Estuary SSSI, SPA, SAC, Natura 2000 site, Ramsar site, MCZ & NNR include the Colne, Brightlingsea Creek, Flag Creek & Alresford Creek, & the waters, mudflats, saltmarshes & coastal grazing marsh are key significant habitats strongly protected by these designations. It is illegal to damage an SSSI, & local planning authorities have an obligation to maintain the character of the undeveloped coast, protecting & enhancing its distinctive landscapes.
Birds are of high importance as qualifying features for many of these designations, in especially the Colne Estuary (Mid Essex Phase 2) Special Protected Area (SPA), as this is a targeted avian designation.
The quality of this local environment is reflected by both the SPA and the additional protection afforded by the Colne Estuary (Mid Essex Phase 2) Ramsar Site and Colne Estuary Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI).
There are 19 bird species of conservation importance using this site, as well as important numbers of wildfowl assemblages across the winter season. A key species of importance are the populations of Brent Geese that populate Brightlingsea Creek, the Colne , the grazing marsh etc.
Brightlingsea Marsh is a significant part of the Colne Estuary National Nature Reserve, as some 97% of Essex’s historic grazing marsh have been lost since the Second World War. In the summer redshank & shoveler breed, & in winter wildfowl & other birds benefit from it. It is still appropriately grazed by cattle & sheep in the traditional way as it has been for centuries, which is critical for its special flora & fauna. It has a fabulous number of yellow meadow ant raised nests which sustain plants like lady’s bedstraw & frequented by green woodpeckers.
Our coastal saltmarsh is of key importance for wintering wildfowl & waders which overwinter here. Our saltmarsh is also a key defence against coastal flooding especially with surges as it diffuses the energy in the waves. Brightlingsea’s East Marsh & Cindry Island are of additional importance as heritage landscape holding a significant range of oyster pits that were constructed from the 17th century on, & were in most use in the 19th & early 20th centuries. However, that heritage has produced a saltmarsh structure of greater physical & wildlife significance than if it had not been structured. It has a great spread of Shrubby Seablite (nationally rare) & other upper marsh plants across the marsh landscape, & this & the pits provide food & shelter conditions from which wintering birds & other species benefit.
The creative re-use of dredge mud from Brightlingsea Creek obtained in its in its harbour works, has been put to good use to cause saltmarsh regeneration around eroded areas of Cindry island. This initiative by BHC & Exo Environmental has met with co-operation by the statutory bodies including Natural England & wildlife organisations such as the British Naturalists’ Association, RSPB etc, in no small part due to appropriate planning & monitoring of bird & benthic populations in the creek before, during & after (which are essential with the level of wildlife designations that incorporate the harbour & creek within the overall protected areas). Families certainly enjoy crabbing from the Town Jetty due to an outstanding population of Shore Crabs.
Within the designation for the MCZ is the realisation of the at risk position of the native oyster, which is such a part of Brightlingsea’s long rich heritage. Fortunately excellent work by Essex University Marine Biology section, the Kent & Essex IFCA (Inshore Fisheries Coinservation Authority [based in Brightlingsea]) & in particular Bram & Richard Hayward of Mersea Oysters are underway with a scheme which is transforming the probable future for this species in our waters.
Our saltmarsh & creeks are of outstanding importance as a nursery for sea fish such as the Sea Bass. From seine netting studies even the few feet of the shore in front of the Sailing Club supports a strong population of young & very protected Sea Bass (covered by KEIFCA by-laws). We have a rich invertebrate population in the benthic zone of our estuary (in the sediment & sub-surface layers which not only sustains itself but is a source of food for the waders & wildfowl.
The Lozenge Nature Area sitting between town & the Grazing Marsh SSSI, is not just a pocket of interest, but holds the most diverse range of grasshoppers & crickets for its area in Essex. It also holds a nationally very rare plant Dittander, which is also found in abundance in the Foldings below Moverons, ie the area behind the seawall (“lower path”, as the Colne is its national stronghold. The Foldings & seawall are especially important for rare species of bees, the same area below Moverons is one of the last coastal sites where Moss Carder Bee can be found in Essex. Its value is the vegetation of the foldings , seawall & the saltmarsh beyond in combination.
Brightlingsea is such an important place that it is critical to protect it both by proper planning governance & ongoing initiatives that protect our natural landscape with its dependant wildlife. Brightlingsea is currently appreciated by its inhabitants as a wonderful place to live, & in large part that reflects its natural landscape & coastal habitats which we all enjoy.
Who doesn’t stop & look when a marsh harrier flies overhead or shellduck & Brent geese feed along the shoreline.
Roger Tabor MPhil CBiol FRSB FBNAhc FLS FCFBA
The British Naturalists’ Association