Thousands of acres of once productive farmland has been turned into a nature reserve in Somerset.

The £20m coastal management scheme, described as the UK’s largest, has opened on the Steart peninsula near Bridgwater.

The Environment Agency (EA) and the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust (WWT) said the creation of the 250ha salt marsh would help protect local villages from storm surges and sea walls from erosion.

Martin Spray, WWT chief executive, said: “We need to be brave and bold if we’re to deal with the impacts of climate change.

“Steart Marshes proves you can protect homes and businesses using wetland technology that works with nature, not against it.”

Contractors have spent months sculpting the new reserve from what was farmland and constructing a series of artificial creeks which will flood on high tides.

See also: Farmer fury at flooded farmland

Half a million cubic metres of soil were dug and moved to create the new habitat.

The new saltmarsh will act as a vast buffer for the new embankments, sapping energy from the tides and protecting nearby villages.

But local farmers and MPs claim the money could have been better spent on other projects to prevent land and businesses from repeat episodes of flooding on the Somerset Levels, such as dredging the rivers.

Ian Liddell-Grainger, Conservative MP for Bridgwater and west Somerset, branded the scheme a “monstrous white elephant”.

He claimed the scheme cost £30m instead of £20m and would not protect a single home on the peninisula from flooding.

“The reality is that this (Environment) agency’s reputation is now in shreds,” he said.

“On its own admission better-dredged rivers would have reduced the severity and length of last winter’s floods. On its own admission it stopped dredging 20 years ago.

“Given that breathtaking display of ineptitude most people will find it barely credible that Environment Agency officials are strutting around like so many farmyard cockerels and expecting to get a slap on the back for Steart.”

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