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 current area of the SSSI is 33 hectares but the estuary itself was once much larger. Next to the estuary – and once part of it – is 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 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
Observatory

Current 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, 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. It is hoped this will both secure long-term future public access and allow natural processes to re-assert themselves, leading to new benefits for people and wildlife.




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Kier Newsletter

Please click here to read the April 2022 Kier Lower Otter Restoration Project newsletter.

Update on bridge work
21 April 2022: Building of the new road embankment and a 30m-span bridge, to carry vehicles over the new creek network on the west of the Lower Otter valley in Budleigh Salterton, enters a new phase next week.
Click here to read more

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