Green travel to green places

In search of climate and wildlife stories…by bike

Using nature to reduce flood risk — June 26, 2012

Using nature to reduce flood risk

RSPB Skinflats reserve with Longannet Power Station in the distance

At last, I’m on the bike. OK I only missed one day yesterday without the bike but I was keen to get cycling today. Off on the train to Larbert and then a flat run of 6 miles to the Firth of Forth at Skinflats. RSPB Skinflats reserve isn’t advertised to visitors or signposted – the part I visited is used as a demonstration site.

Skinflats reserve is mainly mud. The mudflats between Grangemouth and the Kincardine bridge are designated for nature and now protected. Good job too as when you visit you notice the amount of development along the Forth. Grangemouth oil refinery, Longannet powerstation, both Forth bridges and both bridges at Kincardine are visible from the reserve. It is an island of nature along the Forth. And that is partly the problem.

Two hundred years ago, or more, the banks of the Forth would have looked a lot different. Saltmarsh and intertidal habitats would have dominated. Since then land has been drained and reclaimed for agriculture and built on, including all the industy and communities along the Forth, and have used sea defences for protection from the tide and storms.

Climate change is causing sea levels to rise and is squeezing and eroding the remaining saltmarsh habitat between the tidal river and the sea walls. The earth bank sea defenses are doing their job but actually benefit from the protection of saltmarsh which dissipates the power of the waves. Without the habitat, sea defences need more regular costly maintenance or could be breached more easily leading to a potentially disasterous flooding. The risks only get more extreme as we continue to produce greenhouse gases and worsen climate change. You can’t keep building ever higher sea defences in the same place.

In 2002 the RSPB bought a field to extend the reserve and to revert it back to saltmarsh habitat. The sea defences were ‘retreated’ inland around the field and work is ongoing to allow the tide to flood the land in a controlled way. Within one year of allowing the saltwater to deluge the land, saltmarsh plants were colonising and birds such as lapwing and redshank were nesting. It is an example of using nature to help us to adapt to the impacts of climate change – to build our resilience in the face of greater flood risk. We will need much more of this type of coastal realignment in the future if we are to protect communities and industry along the Forth from the impacts of sea level rise and storm events. Till then RSPB Skinflats reserve is a much needed island of nature amongst the development along the Forth.

Bird of the day was a short-eared owl that I flushed out of long grass – It flew a short distance and hid itself again in the saltmarsh.

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