Friday 23 November 2012

Wildlife, Wetlands & Crossrail: A Visit to Wallasea Island

Wallasea Island

Huge, overarching sky; pools of crystal-blue water; a vast, flat landscape stretching out to the horizon - this is Wallasea Island on the Essex coast.  I've just made a visit here, on a day of brittle autumn sunshine, to see for myself the beginnings of a project that will be the "largest man-made nature reserve in Europe", because millions of tonnes of soil will be arriving on Wallasea to create a wetland landscape of mudflats, salt marsh and lagoon, last seen over 400 years ago.

Wetland with the Crossrail material handling facility just visible in the distance
The soil is initially coming from the Crossrail project; the rail tunnels currently being bored through London - and the soil is apparently being brought up from a level so deep it won't be polluted.  The RSPB, the owner of the reserve, has partnered Crossrail to create this new wildlife haven.  Crossrail will deliver 4.5 million tonnes of material in total and at its peak there will be 10,000 tonnes unloaded on the island by 4 ships a day. A new jetty and material handling facility have been built to process this; it's a large development, which seems to rise up out of the salt marsh.  Next to it is a line of soil "pyramids" and as I came up to these, the automated conveyor belt bringing the soil suddenly started up, creating an eerie, echoing sound in the vast, windswept landscape.  It's an impressive bit of mechanised kit, but - as I watched - a man came up with a long stick and started poking at a blockage in it. It still needs to be fixed in the old fashioned way, then.

The soil from Crossrail
The new wetlands will reverse the loss of tidal marshes to arable farming that has been taking place for centuries.  The risk of flooding on the Essex coast and rising sea levels has led to new thinking here; the sea walls have traditionally held the tide back but now sections of these are being breached to allow the water to return.  I could clearly see here on the island where small sections of the sea wall have been breached.
Sections of the sea wall that have been breached
The new reserve should encourage wading birds, ducks, geese, fish and seals.  It is hoped that lost populations of spoonbills and Kentish plovers will return to this site.  On my visit, I saw flocks of beautiful golden plovers; the sunlight glinting on their wings as they flew off - as well as lapwings and curlews.  I also saw a sparrowhawk, but sadly no peregrine or short-eared owl (although before I left it was getting just dark enough for them to emerge).  Apparently, 2011 was a good year for the owls and they were often seen hunting here.

We left the island as the tide was coming in, so we just made it through the water before the sea flooded the road and made it impossible to pass.  It had been a fascinating afternoon.


  1. does all the excavated soil from crossrail go by river? There seems to be large quantities passing through Essex countryside in very large lorry's almost in convoy formation. This has continued for long time and therefore suggests a crossrail connection Could this be so or is there further development elsewhere?

  2. Crossrail and others involved say that the soil is being shipped - but it would be interesting if some of it is going by road. If so, it would be contrary to all the publicity. Presumably -somewhere -this is being monitored.


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