24 August 2001

Sea defence work halted to avoid rare plant disturbance

By David Green

OWNERS of farmland behind sea defences in East Anglia are protesting after routine maintenance was halted by concern about disturbance to rare plants.

English Nature, the governments wildlife watchdog, opposes the repair of the shingle bank south of the Suffolk seaside town of Aldeburgh. The work has been carried out each summer for the past 15 years since an £8m sea defence scheme was completed.

Winter storms create large holes in the bank. Each year, the Environment Agency carries out repairs using shingle hauled from an area where it is more plentiful. But English Nature says the work is disturbing rare plants.

It insists the agency complies with the European Habitats Directive which requires all sea defence options to be considered, from abandoning maintenance of the shingle bank to building a concrete wall.

Even if the agency concludes that the present practice of transferring the shingle is the best option, it will have to take steps to mitigate damage to the rare plants or create a replacement habitat elsewhere. Robert Skepper, who runs a 500-acre unit behind the sea defences, said he and other farmers feared the shingle bank could be breached. Arable fields and wildlife-rich water meadows could be vulnerable to flooding and saltwater contamination, he added.

Mr Skepper estimates that flooding might affect up to 1500 acres of farmland. He said: "Should the sea be permitted to break through, the whole rural economy of the area will be put at risk with devastating consequences."

No flood risk

A spokeswoman for the Environment Agency said there was no risk of flooding while the future strategy was decided. She added: "The agency will invoke its emergency powers if there is any likelihood of a breach."

Richard Rafe, head of English Natures Suffolk team, said authorities responsible for sea defences had to justify their options when there was an adverse impact on wildlife.

He added: "We may be made to appear as the bad boys in this situation, but we are merely asking for the proper procedures to be followed." &#42