Rising sea levels are putting the squeeze on our coast, so WWT and the Environment Agency have created Steart Marshes – one of the UK’s largest new wetland reserves.

Coastal squeeze

Rising sea levels are predicted to completely flood thousands of hectares of saltmarsh and mudflats over the next 50 years. These habitats are important feeding places for many birds and fish. They are also a natural buffer against the sea, which protects us against the worst storms and tides. At many places along the coast there is no choice but to build higher defences to protect homes and businesses. But at some places, such as Steart Marshes, it is possible to realign the coastline allowing new saltmarsh to form. These newly created saltmarshes go some way to replacing those lost to the sea. They're a cheaper and more sustainable way to protect against flooding into the future and they create much needed space for wildlife.

Community involvement

This is change at a landscape scale and it affects the safety of people's homes and businesses, so decisions were taken very carefully and with the full involvement of the local community. WWT and the Environment Agency invited people from the surrounding villages to hear the proposal and listened to their suggestions and concerns. Over a series of face to face meetings the group came up with a revised proposal that everyone was happy to support. There were no objections to the planning application and all the land for the project was sold voluntarily by the landowners. The community continued to be closely involved with the project through the construction, and even came up with the name: Steart Marshes. Today, many of the volunteers that help manage the reserve, monitor wildlife and welcome visitors live in the villages that fringe Steart Marshes.

A working wetland

Wetlands are amazing for wildlife, but they can also do a lot of great stuff for people. The more reasons we can give people to love wetlands, the more chances we'll get to create, restore and protect them. Steart Marshes is WWT's first big Working Wetland. It's home to a vast array of wildlife and it's a place that people love to visit. But as well as that, it's locking away carbon from the atmosphere that would otherwise contribute to climate change.

The development of new saltmarsh is a rare opportunity so WWT is supporting academic research to measure how much carbon is absorbed. Steart Marshes was once arable farmland and it continues to be farmed with livestock by local graziers who are able to market saltmarsh lamb and beef for a premium because its flavour is valued by food lovers. The tidal creeks that run across Steart Marshes shelter fish fry. The fish attract herons and egrets but they are also from commercially important species such as sea bass. Another feature of the site is that waste water from the public loos goes through a treatment wetland, a more natural way to treat waste and itself creates additional habitats for wildlife.

Project milestones

April 2009 to October 2011 - A series of community meetings were held at which the EA, WWT and the contract engineers were involved. Proposals for Steart Marshes were presented to the local community which then helped shape the final design. A trial bank was also built in 2010, so the engineers had time to test how much the soil compacted and shrank before the main construction took place.

March 2011 - The first diggers arrived. They built a freshwater wetland first, so it had time to mature before the main construction work started. This is where amphibians and mammals displaced by construction could take refuge.

April 2011 - Local Otterhampton School made a film about coastal change with WWT staff and the Somerset Coastal Change Pathfinder.

March 2012 - Sedgemoor District Council granted planning permission. There wasn’t a single objection from the community. The land where the new wetlands were to be created was immediately bought.

March to July 2012 - An archaeological dig mapped and recorded remains found during the construction. They indicate that there has been a settlement on the Steart peninsula since late Iron Age.

May 2012 - The main earthworks began, but were soon held up by the wettest summer on record.

September 2012 – December 2012 - The last of over 3,000 great crested newts were collected from the new large intertidal area and moved to a number of ponds in Steart village. Badgers were moved to new setts that had been specifically made for them.

May 2013 - Excavations began on the new creek system and the tidal lagoons.

June 2013 - New flood defence embankments were created from the earth and clay dug from the creek system and lagoons. All the spoil was used on site so nothing had to be taken away or brought in, which reduces the carbon footprint of the project.

July 2013 - The brackish area called Otterhampton Marsh was completed.

August 2013 - The freshwater area called Stockland Marshes was completed.

February 2014 - The reserve was opened to the public. The villagers of Steart, Combwich and Stockland Bristol helped plant two new community orchards. It’s the first of many workdays at which local volunteers help develop and manage the marshes.

June 2014 - Two wildlife hides were put in place. They are made from recycled shipping containers.

September 2014 - The old sea wall is breached, letting the tides onto Steart Marshes for the first time.

April to September 2015 - The first shoots of salt-tolerant plants are found, indicating that the marshes are starting to develop. Other ongoing wildlife monitoring undertaken by our volunteers includes great crested newts, otter , butterflies, wintering and breeding birds. Celebrated the official opening of the reserve, with the EA, volunteers, local community and organisations involved in the creation of the scheme. Start of partnership with Bridgwater College, first student placements

May 2015 - First pair of breeding avocet

July 2019 - Freshwater parts of the reserve awarded recognition as a Priority Site of National Importance for dragonflies

May 2020 - Black-winged stilts nest on the Stockland Marsh

Dec 2020 - Awarded Green Recovery Challenge Fund support

Nov 2021 - Community project creates a giant willow longhorn sculpture

May 2022 - Awarded National Nature reserve status and become part of the Somerset Wetlands Super NNR

July 2022 - Site launches as a dragonfly hotspot with support from the British Dragonfly Society