Farmland handed back to river to create wildlife-rich wetland and curb flooding

Emily Beament, PA Environment Correspondent
·3-min read

The National Trust is handing back a patch of low-grade farmland to a Cornish river to create wetland habitat to help nature and reduce flooding.

The scheme on a 1.7-hectare (4.2 acre) field alongside the River Tamar will effectively turn back the clock nearly 200 years, restoring the original flood plain that was turned into farmland by the Victorians, the charity said.

It will create intertidal habitat on a stretch of the tidal Tamar at the trust’s Cotehele property north of Plymouth that it is hoped will attract wildlife ranging from curlew and little egret to otters, harvest mice, bugs and worms.

The land was converted to farmland with the building of an embankment in 1850 and has had cows grazing on it in recent years.

Turning it back to wetland will also help lock carbon in the mud, trap sediment to clean the river, make space for water and alleviate regular flooding at the Cotehele Quay car park, the trust said.

It is a more sustainable – and less costly – solution than continuing to repair the old embankment after storms and floods made more frequent by climate change, the charity argued.

Phase one of the project is under way to create channels to allow water to move and flow easily into the new wetlands, and create an embankment at one end of the site to protect existing infrastructure.

Flooding at Cotehele, Cornwall in February 2020
Flooding at Cotehele, Cornwall in February 2020 (Mel Peters/National Trust/PA)

Later this year, phase two will involve creating a small breach in the existing 19th-century embankment which will allow tidal waters to flow into the channels and across the field that regularly floods.

This will allow the creation of new habitat over the next five to 10 years.

Alastair Cameron, project manager at the National Trust, said: “By creating new wetland habitat similar to that found before the embankment was built, we can make space for nature and water.

“All the original salt marshes and reed beds along the river would have absorbed large quantities of water and supported a range of wildlife.

“Although the work we are doing will still be a human intervention, we are aiming to help the water to encroach naturally.

“The new bank will mean we can protect important infrastructure and help to minimise disruption to people when we experience high tides and extreme weather events.”

Aerial photo of the land which has been farmland since the 19th century before work started (Steve Haywood/National Trust/PA)
Aerial photo of the land which has been farmland since the 19th century before work started (Steve Haywood/National Trust/PA)

The £250,000 project is taking place in partnership with the Environment Agency and supported by Natural England and Plymouth University.

Tony Flux, coast and marine adviser in the South West for the National Trust, said: “Working with nature rather than against it is a more sustainable and long-term solution – and is much less costly than a continual cycle of build and repair, which will only increase in frequency as our climate changes.

“To continue to repair the old embankment would have been a never-ending task.

“The work we are doing will enable the river to behave much more naturally and adapt to the changes happening at our coastal and inter-tidal areas, which are always the first places to feel the impact of climate change.”

Curlew, another species which it is hoped will benefit from the new wetland (Rob Coleman/National Trust/PA)
Curlew, another species which it is hoped will benefit from the new wetland (Rob Coleman/National Trust/PA)

The scheme is part of a wider programme of habitat creation throughout the Tamar catchment which aims to make the area more resilient to climate change and provide a better environment for nature and people.

Rob Price, catchment co-ordinator for the Environment Agency, said: “The Tamar catchment faces a number of pressures on its water environment.

“These include climate change which is impacting the intensity of weather events, especially rainfall and prolonged dry periods.

“This valuable work at Cotehele is an important part of a much wider, integrated programme of works to build catchment resilience to these pressures, providing long-term benefits to local wildlife, habitats and people.”