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  BBC 7 Oct 07
Farmland yields to major wetland
By Jeremy Cooke BBC rural affairs correspondent

Looking at Wallasea Island today, it's hard to imagine that this flat, featureless landscape is about to become one of Britain's most important wildlife sanctuaries.

But 500 years ago - before this corner of coastal Essex was drained to make way for crop production - this was salt marsh. It was a thriving natural environment teeming with life.

Now, in its most ambitious project in this country, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) is about to spend 12m recreating the salt marsh, turning the clock back by hundreds of years.

The plan is simple: the ancient sea walls which have held back the tides for so long will be carefully breached, and the waters will once again flood the land which has been used for wheat production for centuries.

Sea return

The project manager, Mark Dixon, says: "We will have a landscape of marshes, islands, lagoons and creeks little more than 20 inches deep at high tide.

"Wallasea is one island now but was once five separate pieces of land. We will restore these ancient divisions and each new island will have its own tidal control."

There is good reason for the high hopes for this massive project.

Last year a similar, smaller-scale development was funded by the government.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) put up 7.5m and the newly-recreated salt marsh is already attracting a wide variety of coastal birds, marine flora and other wildlife.

Once work begins on creating another 730 hectares (1,800 acres) of salt marsh in this latest RSPB project, it seems certain that we will see wading birds, ducks and geese in huge numbers. And the hopes go beyond that.

Place for people

Conservationists hope that we may see a return of the Kentish plover, which has been absent for some 50 years. We could also see spoonbills, which have not successfully nested here for more than 400 years.

Otters are also likely to be attracted to what will be a rich and diverse habitat.

If things go really well, we may also see black-winged stilts, which have never bred in Britain.

The RSPB's chief executive, Graham Wynne, says: ''Wallasea will become a wonderful coastal wetland full of wildlife in a unique and special landscape.

"It will be a true wilderness experience, attracting huge numbers of birds to feed, shelter and breed."

But this project is not just about wildlife. It's about people too.

Mr Wynne says: "It will be a place for people to visit, savour and enjoy, with several miles of new coastal walks, and it will make a major contribution to efforts to help wildlife adjust to the serious impacts of climate change."

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