The other day, I argued we need a push for restoration and rehabilitation, not just conservation, of threatened ecosystems. So I was excited to read a story in The Guardian about Steart Marshes, a £20m project to create a 250-hectare salt marsh as a form of both natural flood defense and much-needed wildlife habitat too.
The Environment Agency is working with birdlife charity Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust (WWT) to manage the flooding of a select area of farmland, creating salt marshes that naturally absorb wave energy, reducing flooding of homes and protecting power lines and other infrastructure too. The agency claims the move will also reduce pressure on flood defenses elsewhere by absorbing high tides.
This isn't the first time we've covered natural flood defences. From using coastal wetlands to protect New York to the tragedy of mangrove loss leading to cyclone deaths, there's plenty of evidence to suggest that past decisions to dredge, drain, deforest and otherwise mess up our coastal landscapes can have dire, unintended consequences. And conversely, that turning the clock back on those decisions can not just help nature, but protect our own short-term economic interests too.
It's interesting, however, that not everyone agrees with such tactics. Ian Liddell-Granger, a Conservative Member of Parliament, has called it a "extravagant, ridiculous scheme", accusing the Environment Agency of putting birds ahead of humans. Liddell-Granger was also a vocal critic of the Environment Agency during recent UK flooding, claiming that decisions not to dredge rivers led to increased losses. (See this article on why "more dredging" is at best simplistic, and at worst counter-productive as a response to flooding.)
From natural tidal management through carbon sequestration to filtering our air, nature can do incredible things that are in our benefit. Unfortunately, the mechanistic, linear paradigm we (and Mr Liddell-Granger) have been surrounded by make it very hard to grasp a more intelligent, synergistic approach to ecosystem services. But another aspect of the Steart Marshes scheme may help in this regard too. Far from putting "birds before people", the new wetlands will in fact be opened up for community use. From grazing to recreation to potential use as a nursery for commercial fish stocks, the Environment Agency and WWT are astutely looking to multiple near-term human benefits beyond flood management too.
Presumably Mr Liddell-Granger is not against commercial fisheries or new tourist attractions, is he?