15 June 2001

Erosion bites deep into estate

THE sea shares in the harvest on the Benacre Estate in north Suffolk, where each year cliff-top farmland disappears into the waves as erosion continues relentlessly.

And each year the IACS map has to be re-drawn and the claim for area payments reduced.

The 2700ha (6700-acre) Benacre Estate, owned and farmed for generations by the Gooch family, is at the sharp end of the Governments coastal management policy which includes plans to allow parts of the eroding East Anglian coast to remain undefended.

Coast defence officials from the Environment Agency, MAFF and local authorities believe that building concrete walls along parts of the coast cannot be justified economically or environmentally.

The walls, which could cost many millions of pounds, would be undermined within a few years and might have a detrimental effect on defences elsewhere along the coast, they argue.

An area of about 100ha (250 acres) of the Benacre Estate has been lost to the sea over the past 50 years and a further 80ha (200 acres) are likely to disappear by the middle of this century

But for Sir Timothy Gooch, the estates current guardian, the lack of defences is not only causing an annual loss of land but is threatening the viability of the his tenants farms. That is because the estate includes coastal nature reserves of national and international importance, also under threat from the sea.

Under the European Habitats Directive, the Government must replace such habitat and officials of the Environment Agency and local authorities are examining plans to replace valuable reed beds by flooding the estates grazing marshes along the nearby Hundred river.

Sir Timothy says the rate of cliff erosion has increased in recent years and his own home, several other houses and a church are likely to be lost to the sea over the next 20 years.

"Over the last decade, the rate of erosion has been about 10 yards a year and this last year we lost 10 yards of coastline in one stormy night," he said.

"It is very difficult to know how to defend the cliffs. It would no doubt be incredibly expensive but we would like to see the figures, if they exist."

Sir Timothy believes the grazing marshes under threat of conversion to reedbeds are worth protecting in their own right, supporting a varied wildlife.

Agent to the estate, Michael Horton, said coastal defence officials had accepted an invitation to tour the area and talk about land use issues.

"We are not banging the drum for compensation for every acre lost," he said. "Our concern is that they are planning to flood grazing marshes in order to replace reedbeds which they should be protecting in the first place.

"We are just concerned that some of their proposals do not take into account land use issues and – an increasing rarity – the English farmer."

Officials have not yet made it clear whether they would try to use compulsory purchase powers to create reed beds on the grazing marshes. &#42

Cliffhanger… Farms manager Jonathan Mitchell on the receding cliff.