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Estuary today

Queen’s Green Canopy

The Environment Agency, on behalf of the Lower Otter Restoration Project, has been granted a virtual plaque after planting 225 trees to form part of the Queen’s Green Canopy which marked the 2022 Platinum Jubilee.

Click here to see the plaque.

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2 January 2024: After a fascinating journey over the past few years, we are pleased to be able to say that the construction phase of the pioneering Lower Otter Restoration Project is now complete.

As a result, this website will no longer be updated, but it is our intention that it should remain available online as a publicly available source of information until the end of 2024.

To comply with data protection legislation, the project mailing list is being deleted as no fresh updates will be issued by this route.

The Lower Otter is now being managed by the Pebblebed Heaths Conservation Trust and you can sign up for their newsletters here.

You can still email the project team and your message will be passed to the most relevant team member for a response.

On behalf of the whole team we would like to thank all those partners and members of the public who have supported us in this challenging and important project which has led to the creation of 55ha of fantastic intertidal habitat, benefiting wildlife and the community.

Residents celebrate opening of the 'Elizabeth Bridge'

24 November 2023:  The brand new 70m "Elizabeth Bridge" has been officially opened by Hon. Charles Fane Trefusis and Mark Rice, Environment Agency Area Director, marking a significant milestone for the project.

Click here to read more.

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Answers to the most frequently asked questions about the project are available here.




Environmental Statement
To see the Lower Otter Restoration Project Environmental Statement, click here.

The Lower Otter Estuary meets the sea at Budleigh Salterton in East Devon. The estuary, along with the cliffs of Otterton Point, is a nationally important site for biodiversity and is designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI). It contains a range of intertidal habitats including saltmarsh and tidal creeks.

The original area of the SSSI was 33 hectares but the estuary itself was once much larger. Next to the estuary – and once part of it – was an extensive area of freshwater grazing marsh, while the mouth of the estuary is largely closed by a shingle bar which has changed little over hundreds of years.

The estuary and marshes support a wide variety of breeding and wintering bird species, including waders and wildfowl. They form part of a network of important feeding sites which include the Axe and Exe Estuaries.

A network of public footpaths provides access to much of the site, with one of Devon’s most popular footpaths running along the now breached embankment. This was built in 1812 to convert estuarine habitat to farmland. Today, it is part of the South West Coast Path.

The estuary is managed by the Pebblebed Heaths Conservation Trust, a conservation charity established by Clinton Devon Estates in 2006 to look after the nature reserve and the adjacent East Devon Pebblebed Heaths. Work includes managing reedbeds, improving wetland features on the grazing marshes, and understanding and controlling invasive species such as Himalayan balsam.

Local conservation partners include the East Devon Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, the Otter Valley Association and Devon Birds.

Manmade changes to the estuary

The natural environment of the River Otter and its estuary has, for hundreds of years, been modified by humans. In the early 19th century an embankment was built to claim land for agriculture. This enclosed about three-quarters of the original extent of the estuary, turning intertidal habitats from mudflat and saltmarsh into agricultural land. The river was also straightened and disconnected from its floodplain. Further alterations to the river and its floodplain took place with the construction of an aqueduct, a refuse tip, and the railway which arrived in 1897.

Changes and challenges to the estuary

Picture courtesy of the Plymouth Coastal

Challenges faced by the estuary

The overall results of all these changes was a disruption of natural processes with the river not being able to adapt and move naturally across the floodplain as it once did. Nor could it cope effectively with flooding events. The natural environment itself was also poorer, with reduced biodiversity and lower-quality habitats, and there was a constant need for costly infrastructure maintenance.

Manmade changes to the river and estuary mean the flood flows after heavy rainfall could not pass down the river channel to the estuary. Water spilt into the remaining floodplain but then backed up until it could overtop the embankment across the floodplain. Prolonged deep flooding of fields, the former home of the Budleigh Salterton Cricket Club and South Farm Road followed because the outfall of the only land drain lay below the high tide mark.

Climate change, with increasing storminess and changing weather patterns, meant that these floods were becoming more frequent, while rising sea levels also meant that the embankments were more likely to be overtopped at high tide. Damage to infrastructure as a result of flooding was on the increase. There was a significant risk that a future major flood or extreme tidal event could lead to catastrophic failure of embankments, with unpredictable impacts on the environment. Such an event would also compromise one of the most heavily used public footpaths in Devon, and a public highway to South Farm.

Erosion of embankments, river banks and footpaths, as well as clearance of drainage outfalls, place increasing financial demands on those responsible for them, including Devon County Council and East Devon District Council. Maintaining the status quo was becoming ever more difficult and there was a common desire for a more sustainable way forward.

There were strong argument for the project’s pre-emptive and planned approach to climate change, leading to managed realignment of the existing embankments. This approach has secured long-term future public access and allowed natural processes to begin to re-assert themselves, leading to new benefits for people and wildlife.