High on the Essex coast, an ancient battle between life and death is taking place: a peregrine falcon scans the ground in the Old Hall Marshes nature reserve, where lapwings stand guard over their nests. A “deception” (the collective name of lapwings), launches itself into the air to drive away the raptor. The furious group of expectant parents nibble at the falcon’s feathers until it loses interest.
“This is probably the wildest part of Essex,” says Kieren Alexander, the RSPB site manager, scanning the wetlands with his binoculars for further skirmishing after the lapwings have settled.
This week, the UK government announced that England’s eastern wetlands were being presented as a potential Unesco World Heritage Site, recognizing a key section of the East Atlantic Flyway that connects the migration routes of birds from the Arctic Circle arctic to southern Africa via western Europe.
If approved, the salt marshes and mudflats on the Essex coast, the Wash, parts of the Thames and the Humber Estuary would be recognized on UNESCO’s list of Sites of International Importance, along with the Galápagos Islands and to Kilimanjaro. More than 155 bird species rely on the 170,000 acres of the East Coast wetland network — about twice the size of New York City — to breed, overwinter and rest during migration. They include species such as pink-footed geese, gray plovers and sandpipers.
“The wetlands on the east coast are really important,” says Alexander, explaining how birds like black-tailed godwit, curlews and knotweeds use the network of sites. “They host about 1 million birds during the winter, with about 200,000 migrating along them in the spring and 700,000 in the fall.
These wetlands are like a gas station on a long journey. You stop, feed and go to your next destination
Kieren Alexander, RSPB
“These wetlands are like a gas station on a long journey. You stop, feed and go to your next destination. From here in Essex to the Wash, there are interconnections that have global significance.”
The application was submitted by the RSPB, the National Trust and the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust with support from local councils and the crown estate, and is one of seven potential Unesco sites submitted by the Government after judging by an independent panel of experts. A ‘tentative list’ is published approximately every 10 years and this decade’s list includes York city centre, Birkenhead Park and an Iron Age settlement in Shetland.
The habitat network on the East Atlantic Flyway covers Blakeney Nature Reserve in Norfolk and RSPB Minsmere in Suffolk, both areas featured in the BBC’s Wild Isles series. Also included is Wallasea Island in Essex, which has been partially restored using land from the Crossrail tunnels.
Banc d’Arguin in Mauritania, West Africa and the Wadden Sea in Germany, Denmark and the Netherlands are other sections of the avian migration route that have Unesco status.
“If we really want to conserve these migratory species, we need to connect the dots and make sure the stopovers are truly protected,” says Patricia Zurita, CEO of BirdLife International. “It is not enough to protect nesting areas in the north or wintering areas in the south. You need pitstops.
He adds: “It’s not just for birds. Think of fish and other migratory species in Africa or Asia: they need corridors to move, rest and refuel. Migration is an incredibly important part of our ecosystems. If we don’t protect these places, like the sites in Essex, we won’t have the extraordinary species we depend on.”
Related: Half of Europe’s wetlands have been lost in the last 300 years, researchers calculate
The RSPB says it hopes the offer will start a conversation about the future of England’s east coast, which is vulnerable to sea level rise. Many of the wetland ecosystems in the network will be affected by rising waters. UNESCO’s bid offers the opportunity, he says, to discuss climate adaptation projects that have potential benefits for nature and people, protecting property and farmland from flooding, while creating habitats for birds, nurseries for fish and seizing the carbon.
Only two of the UK’s 33 existing Unesco Heritage Sites are wilderness areas: England’s Jurassic Coast and Northern Ireland’s Giant’s Causeway. The Flow Country, a large area of bogland between Caithness and Sutherland in northern Scotland, has already been submitted to Unesco and is another key biodiversity site.
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