Restoration projects invite wildlife back to the Thames Estuary

Brent geese feed on the mud flats of the Thames Estuary near Southend-on-Sea in Essex

The Thames Estuary has long been home to heavy industry, rubbish dumps and drained marshes, but restoration projects are inviting wildlife back in.

Winding lazily for 95 miles from the west of London, through the heart of the city and out past skyscrapers, factories and docks, then on through the mud flats that fringe Kent and Essex until it reaches the cold North Sea, the tidal Thames Estuary is one of the greatest on Earth. 

This is the world of mists and mudflats out beyond the Thames Barrier and the Royal Docks that once inspired and haunted writers such as Charles Dickens and Joseph Conrad. Yet, despite the estuary’s significance, the 20th century has seen the slow disappearance of 97 per cent of its wetland habitat. As London expanded between 1932 and 1984, marshland was drained, either for industrial development or to create farmland on which to grow arable crops to feed the growing city. As a result, much of the wildlife that once called these places home was pushed back and began to disappear. 

Change has come again in recent years. Many of the huge industrial sites have declined and the scarred remains handed over to the management of conservation groups such as the RSPB, with the hope that the land can be returned to nature. The RSPB completed its first land acquisition on the estuary’s Essex bank in 2000, when 479 hectares of land at Rainham Marshes, previously used as a ring range, were bought from the Ministry of Defence. 

In 2006, 31 hectares of land were acquired at Vange Marsh and since then, a further 730 hectares have come under RSPB management. 

The challenge has been to find the funding necessary to restore this land to its full potential. ‘The Thames Estuary is an amazing place for wildlife,’ says Alan Johnson, RSPB area manager for Kent and Essex. ‘Despite the disappearance of wetland over the past century, it still hosts the second-largest aggregation of wintering wildfowl and waders in Britain. The UK is a very biodiverse place, but what puts us on the map is our breeding sea bird colonies and wintering wildfowl populations, so the Thames is important. A lot of the estuary is waiting to be switched back on for wildlife, but we need willing partners, more government support and more connectivity between habitats.’ 

A number of the Essex reserves are already officially recognised as important. Rainham Marshes and Canvey Wick are both designated Sites of Special Scientific Interest. Canvey Wick has been described as a ‘little brownfield rainforest’, home to 30 invertebrates found on the IUCN Red List, including three species previously thought to have been extinct in the UK. 

Now, a small amount of financial help has become available through the Thames Vision 2035 plan, initiated by the Port of London Authority (PLA) and launched in 2015. The PLA is a self-funding trust that governs the tidal Thames. It has a number of statutory responsibilities relating to river-traffic control, security and navigational safety, but according to its chief executive, Robin Mortimer, it also has a duty ‘to hand the tidal Thames on in a better condition to succeeding generations’. 

Estuary wildlife
In the estuary, wildlife has continued to thrive, despite the industrial and urban development

Thames Vision 2035 was developed over an 18-month period and included consultation with 74 stakeholders, from local councils to major freight companies, rowing clubs, conservation groups and boatyards, as well as members of the public. The aim was to provide a framework for the estuary’s development. Stakeholders were asked to address three questions: what do they value about the tidal Thames; what are their top three priorities for the river’s future; and what do they want the PLA to do? 

The final document, The Vision for the Tidal Thames, included six goals: more trade and jobs in London’s ports; more freight, taking goods off roads and onto the river; increased passenger transport; increased sport and recreation; more ways for people to enjoy the Thames; and improvements to the environment. It’s this last goal that could help to restore the landscape. 

The environmental package under Thames Vision 2035 embraces a wide number of different projects, including the £4.2 billion, 25-kilometre Thames Tideway Tunnel, which is due for completion in 2023. Another major programme is the PLA’s ongoing fight against litter in the river, the Cleaner Thames Campaign, led by former RGS-IBG vice president Paul Rose. Currently, up to 300 tonnes of rubbish are removed from the Thames every year. 

Thames Vision 2035 is also looking at ways to restore some of the natural wildlife habitats along the banks of the estuary. ‘Sixty years ago, there were no fish in the Thames Estuary,’ says Tanya Ferry, head of environment for the PLA. In 1957, the Natural History Museum declared the Thames ‘biologically dead’. Wartime bombings had destroyed the network of sewers that had previously helped to keep the river clean. Post-war Britain didn’t have the resources to fix the problem. It was only in the 1960s, when the sewage system was improved, that the Thames started to breathe again. Today, despite ongoing concerns about pollution, an estimated 125 species can be found in the water, including seals and seahorses. Now, attention is being turned to wildlife along the banks. 

Shrill Carder Bee
Shrill carder bees are commonly seen along the banks of the Thames Estuary

‘We want to create a different and better riverscape,’ says Ferry. ‘Part of the Thames Vision 2035 plan is to restore and connect natural habitats on the edge of the estuaries, through planning greener edges – re-establishing plant and animal species along the riverbanks. As well as the major projects, small gains – such as a bit of gravel for a tern – can make a big difference.’ 

Some of the first projects to benefit from funding and see results are RSPB reserves on the Essex banks of the estuary. Four South Essex sites and one North Kent site have received funding totalling more than £150,000. The two main projects are at Bowers Marsh, a grassland, marshland and wetland reserve that needed restoration and faces a constant battle with predators, and Canvey Wick, which needed targeted habitat restoration. 

Lapwing
The upper Thames area is important habitat for wader species that use its wetlands and flower-rich meadows. Lapwings have suffered significant declines in recent years, but restoration projects on the Thames Estuary are hoping to reverse the trends

‘We knew these patches of land had real potential but we were hampered by a lack of the necessary nancial resources,’ says Izzy Donovan, senior sites manager for the South Essex reserves. The RSPB wanted to improve water levels and nesting grounds to encourage wintering birds and to protect them from predators such as foxes, which have made a permanent home in Pitsea landfill site – one of the largest landfills in the UK, situated adjacent to Bowers Marsh. Although financially modest compared to the billions being spent elsewhere, as far as the RSPB is concerned, the funding represented a small pot of gold.

‘This is an important partnership. We need commerce to work with us, to appreciate the value brought by improving these reserves and bringing them back to their full potential,’ says Donovan. 

The funding enabled the RSPB to build a 3.6-kilometre barrier fence to reduce predation; restore ditch networks to support water voles, a priority conservation species in Europe; and restore 175 hectares of wet grassland for ground-nesting waders and wildfowl such as lapwing and redshank, which have significantly declined. The work took place at the end of 2019 and wildlife has rushed back: redshanks, avocets and lapwings have been building nests and chicks have been hatching and fledging.

‘It’s extraordinary,’ says Izzy. ‘I certainly didn’t expect it to change that quickly. But because of the lack of predation and the other work carried out, there are more waders nesting in the grassland area than I’ve ever seen before. Industry is ingrained in the Thames, but wildlife can live alongside it. People are waking up to their environment; people care about the world they live in.’ 

ther river-bank projects due to receive funding include land on the north bank at West Thurrock, where the salt marsh is eroding, and a project on the eight islands that lie in the river between Chiswick and Richmond, where black poplars, a now-rare species that used to form woodlands on floodplains, are due to be planted. 

Meanwhile, the slow transformation of the South Essex reserves is being followed with great interest by Ian White, who has been an RSPB volunteer in the region for 11 years and has lived on Canvey Island for 22. ‘This part of Essex was and is riddled with rubbish dumps. But here on the estuary, it’s a success story in terms of the transformation of brown eld sites,’ he says. ‘Canvey Wick was at one time destined to be a caravan park, then an oil refinery, but it’s ended up as a reserve. Now you can count the orchids in their thousands.’ 

The key now is to continue the good work. ‘The enthusiasm of those working for environmental and conservation organisations looking to improve and restore the banks of the Thames Estuary makes me optimistic that all that’s needed is a concerted effort and more funding,’ says Professor Tim Stott of Liverpool John Moores University. However, he also offers a reminder that things can change, particularly when water rises and flooding increases. ‘In the 2013–14 flood season, the Thames Barrier was closed 41 times for floods and nine times for high tides – figures that I find slightly alarming. Thee barrier was designed to last until 2060–70, but I wonder if it will. I’m concerned that in the coming decade, there will be increasing tension between protecting London from flooding versus improving and restoring the environment.’ 

Source: Geographical, 24th November 2020