The Wash Barrier Proposal – the RSPB's view

On 29th April Town and Around published an article entitled 'The Wash Barrier Proposal' by agricultural consultant Robin Limb. Sarah Mitchell, RSPB Conservation Officer, The Wash and North Norfolk Coast, responds.

The subject of a Wash barrier (or barrage) proposal comes up from time to time; last seriously rearing its head in 2008 when the idea was rejected by Government. At that time the RSPB joined forces with other conservation bodies to express our shared condemnation for the proposal. And we would do the same today.

Climate change and the associated sea level rise, flooding and the need for more sustainable fresh water is a huge concern for us all. We support the need for coastal resilience and flood protection, but in a way that works with nature, not against it.

The Wash is truly one of eastern England’s last great wildernesses. It’s the largest bay in England, the most important estuary for birds in the UK, and one of the most important wetlands for wildlife in Europe. The vast expanse of mudflat, sand dunes, saltmarsh, shingle and open water provide a rich mosaic of feeding, roosting and breeding habitats for birds. In fact, the rich wildlife of the Wash is of national and international importance and protected by law. It regularly holds up to 450,000 wildfowl and wading birds and, over the course of a year, more than two million birds use The Wash. It is also home to one of the North Sea’s largest breeding populations of common seal. It’s a breath-taking place, not just for the sheer volume of its wildlife, but for the astonishing variety of species.

People have lived and worked on The Wash for centuries; supporting a thriving fisheries and shellfish industry, bustling ports and nourishing the fertile soils of the surrounding farmland. The seclusion and beauty of The Wash bring pleasure to many and the benefits of the natural world for health and wellbeing are now well recognised. In the last few extraordinary weeks how many of us have lifted our spirits with views of The Wash?

It is well documented that tidal barriers carry huge risks to sensitive environments, but that’s not the only cost. There’s the huge monetary cost - money paid by the public - of carrying out the works and maintaining the barrier into the future. And what of The Wash fishing fleet who would find themselves out of business, not to mention the impact on the multi-million-pound wildlife watching and tourism industry that exists around The Wash.

The investment required is high-cost and high-risk in comparison to natural flood defence alternatives.

Mr Limb’s article calls for the need to “look at every opportunity – no matter how extreme”, but at what cost? The article does not appear to be based on fact, and we feel this is dangerous and irresponsible, illustrating a lack of understanding about our wild places and their value to society.

Destroying an area as precious as The Wash to build a barrier does not go hand in hand with Government calls for development to ‘leave the natural environment in a measurably better state than beforehand’. In the unlikely event such a proposal was to be taken seriously, the RSPB would vehemently oppose the project.

Sarah Mitchell