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Porlock Marsh Vision

 Porlock Marsh, Exmoor

Porlock Marsh lies on the eastern coastline of Exmoor National Park, between the villages of Porlock Weir, Porlock and Bossington. The Marsh is a dynamic, constantly evolving landscape, with saltmarsh and freshwater habitats bordered by a long shingle ridge and fringed by fertile farmland against a backdrop of woodland, hills and moorland. It is a landscape that has been shaped by farming, and that is now being changed by nature. As a consequence, the Marsh is home to special plants and animals that can live in and adapt to this dynamic changing environment. Alongside this, the historic features and structures on the Marsh tell the story of the people who have lived and worked here.

History of the Marsh and its Breach

The shingle ridge developed about 8000 years ago after the last ice age as sea levels rose and cliffs to the west eroded. Since then, there has been a continual process of change, with deep core samples taken from the Marsh showing that the ridge has moved inland at different periods, with sporadic breaching and ‘healing' events as part of the natural cycle of evolution of the barrier. The most recent breach occurred in 1996 as a result of storms driven by Hurricane ‘Lili’.  Previous breaches have been filled by bulldozing shingle along the ridge, but this time a decision was taken not to intervene. This decision was influenced by the National Trust, (as one of the two main landowners on the Marsh), and the statutory agencies, who wanted to follow a policy of letting natural processes take their course. As a consequence, Porlock Marsh is unique in being the only shingle ridge where the changes arising from a breach have been allowed to develop naturally, leading to the landscape developing as we see it today. Unsurprisingly, the site has become nationally and internationally known as a place to study the effects coastal adaptation, managing the coast using natural processes.

Developing a Vision for Porlock Marsh

However, the approach of letting nature take its course was not supported by everyone at the time, and led to a split in the local community with some embracing the change but others feeling a sense of loss for what was a much loved asset. As a result of a feeling that the community had, in part, turned its back on the Marsh, Porlock Parish Council initiated a project to develop a long term Vision for the Marsh and a plan for its development, management and use. A crucial element of the project was to bring the two main landowners – the National Trust and Porlock Manor Estate – together to help develop and agree the Vision, supported by a steering group including the Parish Council, Exmoor National Park Authority and Natural England. This involved significant research, engagement and consultation with key landowners, local farmers and agencies, local residents, businesses, and tourism providers. Two workshops were also held to look at specific issues – one relating to wildlife; and the other looking at recreation and tourism. The views of visitors and local residents were gathered through a questionnaire.

The main issues identified were lack of information about the Marsh, how to get there, and what to see, poor signage, lack of parking close by, and limited access for people with disabilities or limited mobility. On the Marsh itself there were concerns over slippery and muddy footpaths and safety issues from the daily inundation by the tides.  Visitors identified a lack of seating and no focal point for wildlife watching such as a bird hide or observation point.  Visual intrusion from telegraph poles and ‘clutter’ from old fences were also identified.

From a conservation perspective, the issues related to the changing habitats and associated wildlife following the breach. Much of the area is designated as a nationally important Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI).  Before the breach in 1996, the area was low-lying coastal grazing marsh with freshwater habitats including reedbeds which supported a variety of birds such as reed warblers, duck and snipe. After the breach, these habitats and many of the associated birds and other wildlife were lost as the site was inundated by the tide. Whilst new saltmarsh habitats have established, there is little up to date monitoring of the birds and other wildlife on the marsh.

Porlock Marsh and Bay 

A Porlock Marsh Vision document was developed reflecting these issues and identifying potential opportunities to address them. The main theme of the Vision is to work with the natural processes that are occurring following the breach and to retain the Marsh as a special, unique, tranquil and evolving environment. It was agreed that there should be minimum intervention, but to take limited steps where these facilitate and support its natural development or protect its heritage. There was also strong support for helping people better understand and appreciate the natural processes taking place and for making this unique area better known.

Funding has now been secured to through the Exmoor National Park Partnership Fund, with match funding from Porlock Parish Council, National Trust and the South West Coast Path Association to deliver some of the actions identified in the Vision. This has been divided into two phases, recognising that some of the actions can be progressed quickly, whilst others will require longer to deliver and require further surveys and consultation.

The first phase of funding has been used to provide improved information and interpretation to help raise awareness of Porlock Marsh and help people understand and enjoy it.  2016 is the 20th anniversary of the breach, and so provides an interesting milestone to use to publicise events and activities.  Two new interpretation boards have been produced, along with a leaflet highlighting different walks around the Marsh, and some of the wildlife and features of interest to look out for.  New material has been provided online, including aerial photography providing a new perspective on the Marsh and an evocative time-lapse film which captures its changing moods and landscapes. A series of educational resources are also planned, using the Marsh as a basis for teaching elements of the curriculum.

Local volunteers are helping to build up our knowledge of how the wildlife of the marsh has changed since the breach including monitoring breeding and wintering birds. A ‘Bioblitz’ event is planned for 9-10 July 2016 where local people and visitors will be invited to join in a 24 hour programme of wildlife surveys, guided by local experts and conservation groups. We are also organising an exhibition of photographs inspired by the Marsh, showing the changes that have happened since the breach.

The Vision includes some exciting proposals to improve access. Signage to the Marsh from Porlock village has been improved, and some new seats have been installed at various locations around the Marsh. Improvements are being made to the footpaths including a route realignment and surface improvements. A new boardwalk has been constructed on a particularly muddy and slippery section of footpath, to provide access across the marsh at low tides and address an erosion scar that was visually detracting from the natural beauty of the landscape.

In the longer term, it is hoped that access to the Marsh can be further enhanced through a new route from Porlock village, and an informal car park closer to the Marsh. Inevitably these proposals caused the greatest split of opinion during consultation on the Vision, with some supporting improved access - particularly for those who are less mobile - but also concerns raised about the potential impacts of these proposals. Further studies on the potential options and impacts are required along with ongoing discussions with landowners and tenant farmers. We need to establish whether the plans can be delivered in a way that minimises impacts on farming practices, disturbance to ground-nesting birds, and does not detract from the beauty of the landscape that we want to promote. Further community consultation will also need to be undertaken as the plans progress.

Finally, there are longer term actions which include further research and monitoring to investigate how the Marsh might develop in the future, as the natural processes are allowed to take their course. This includes investigating whether the Hawkcombe stream which runs through Porlock and into the Marsh can be restored to its natural course, potentially creating additional freshwater habitat and enhancing the range of wildlife that can be seen there, and possibly also reducing flood risk upstream in Porlock. These are projects which may not happen quickly, but will play a significant part in delivering the Vision for Porlock Marsh, as it continues to evolve and change over time.

Further information about the Porlock Marsh Vision  contact the Project Manager, Clare Reid, at clare.reid@clarereidconsultancy.co.uk.