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Coastal adaptation project at Northey Island

The causeway across the Blackwater Estuary to Northey Island, Essex, at low tide.
The causeway across the Blackwater Estuary to Northey Island | © National Trust Images/Tudor Morgan-Owen

We’ve started work on a major conservation project at Northey Island to protect, strengthen and enhance the vital saltmarsh habitat in the Blackwater Estuary over the next century. Discover how we’re working in partnership with the RSPB with funding from the EU Life programme to combat the effects of climate change and rising sea levels to help preserve this precious place.

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Coastal adaptation at Northey Island

Northey Island has been at the forefront of coastal adaptation for more than 30 years. This year we reached a peak of our work on the island in our fight against climate change and rising sea level.

What’s happening to saltmarsh habitat at Northey Island

Northey Island is an internationally important place. Its saltmarsh, mudflats and grassland make it ideal for a variety of specialist plants, invertebrates and birds.

But the saltmarsh at Northey Island is far smaller than it used to be, as it’s eroding on the outer edges due to the action of the waves and stronger tidal flows. These effects are caused by rising sea levels and climate change. The inner parts of the saltmarsh are also being eroded along creek margins as salty water flows over and through them.

Why this is a problem

As a result of this, the saltmarsh habitat is changing. Some of the plant species usually found at lower saltmarsh elevations are dying out because the areas where they live are now more frequently under water. These plants are creeping further up the saltmarsh, encroaching on the higher saltmarsh plants.

However, the species higher up have no space to migrate to. Stuck between the rising tides and the fixed coastal flood defences, they’re being eliminated by a process known as ‘coastal squeeze’. This has led to the loss of many hectares of saltmarsh in the Blackwater Estuary and across much of south-eastern England. If we don't take action now, almost all the saltmarsh will be lost.

A view over the saltmarsh at Northey Island, Essex
Saltmarsh at Northey Island | © National Trust Images/Justin Minns

Our Coastal Adaptation Strategy

To mitigate the effects of climate change and rising sea levels, we've developed the Coastal Adaptation Strategy, a conservation project in partnership with the RSPB with funding from the EU Life programme.

The work we do now will help to protect, strengthen and enhance this precious saltmarsh habitat in the Blackwater Estuary over the next 100 years. We’re using a range of approaches to achieve this:

  • Realigning the south and south-east embankments to create new saltmarsh.
  • Using dredged sediment on the north-west side of Northey to raise and regenerate the saltmarsh.
  • Reprofiling other embankments to reduce the risk of failure and further saltmarsh loss.

Realigning the defences

Every year, large tides are overtopping (flowing over) the flood defences at the south and south-east of Northey Island. All the defences around Northey Island are in a poor condition. If they fail in an uncontrolled way, this will lead to erosion and further loss of habitat. It could also limit the way vegetation can become established, reducing the diversity of species compared to a managed situation.

Managed realignment

To tackle this, we’re using a technique called managed realignment. This involves removing parts of the flood bank to give space for the rising sea level. It also allows the saltmarsh plants to migrate inland in a natural way as the sea level rises, giving it a longer lifespan and better biodiversity.

We first implemented this plan at the south-east corner of Northey Island in 1991 and it has led to a healthy ecosystem that has existed for 30 years. Over 5,000 hectares of intertidal area has since been created across England using this technique. Since 2019 we’ve implemented two further managed realignments at Northey Island, creating 5ha of new saltmarsh in the immediate term.

A view over the Blackwater Estuary at Northey Island, Essex
Looking out over the Blackwater Estuary at Northey Island | © National Trust Images/Justin Minns

Regenerating the saltmarsh

Work on the north-west side of the island has involved a different management technique. Here we have reused sediment that had been previously dredged to maintain the navigation for boats and barges to Maldon. Carefully placing the sediment avoids new channels being formed through the saltmarsh east to west and reduces the higher flows that have been causing further erosion and vegetation loss.

This technique modifies the flows within the saltmarsh itself. It takes some of the energy out of the tide so that sediment can naturally be deposited there. This in turn allows the health of the saltmarsh to improve, which then helps reduce the effects of wave action over the saltmarsh surface. To date we have regenerated a hectare of saltmarsh vegetation on what had been eroding, bare clay.

Improving diversity

The new area created sits higher than the existing saltmarsh and regenerates naturally with saltmarsh plants. This improves the diversity of the saltmarsh and provides a niche area for some of the rarer saltmarsh species that are under immediate threat from coastal squeeze.

Reprofiling the embankments

We don’t need to remove all the flood defences that exist. It's also not desirable for nature conservation. But where we do decide to keep embankments in place, we need to make sure they can cope with the higher tidal levels predicted over the next century to avoid any sudden and catastrophic failures and further loss of saltmarsh. To do this, we can use a technique known as reprofiling.

A shallower profile

On the north-east embankment at Northey Island, we have reduced the risk of the embankments breaching when flood waters come over the top. Breaching often happens from the landward side as the water floods over the bank and rushes down the relatively steep slope on the back face of the bank.

Once breached in this unmanaged way, deep scour holes form at the site of the breach and the surrounding saltmarsh is rapidly eroded. By making the back slope of the remaining north-east embankment shallower in profile, we have reduced the risk of this happening.

Releasing the flood water

The flood water can then be released back to the estuary in a controlled way through sluice pipes, avoiding loss of habitat there. In this way, the freshwater and slightly salty (brackish) habitats that exist in ditches, ponds and areas of terrestrial grazing marsh on the land can recover and survive into the future.

Project timeline


Creating new saltmarsh

In April 2023 two sections of flood embankment measuring 200m and 40m were lowered along the east of the island, the third managed realignment implemented at Northey. Over time this will create a new area of fully functioning saltmarsh, making up to 10 hectares in 100 years time.

The tide now flows in and out of the eastern field, bringing in saltmarsh plant seeds and dropping these on the land. Pioneer saltmarsh plants have started to establish very quickly, with small plants growing wherever the saltwater has reached.

Funding our work

The works between 2018 and 2020 were completed with funding from the National Trust's coast fundraising campaign and a grant from Defra’s Natural Flood Management (NFM) fund. From 2021, much of our work has been made possible thanks to EU funding under the LIFE on the Edge Project.

We are working in partnership with the RSPB across several sites to improve coastal habitat for breeding, wintering and migratory water birds and other wildlife. Northey Island is a showcase for how we can use different techniques to manage the habitat supporting these birds.

A view along the coastline of Northey Island, Essex


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Our partners


The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds is a charitable organisation registered in England and Wales and in Scotland.

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LIFE on the Edge

LIFE on the Edge is a 4-year LIFE Nature project lead by the RSPB with the National Trust with the aim to improve the condition of the target coastal sites while also building their long-term resilience and informing future work elsewhere.

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DEFRA's Natural Flood Management (NFM) fund

Allocations of flood management funding to allow homes, businesses and communities around the country to benefit from increased flood protection.

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