WUC student volunteers to protect coastal habitats

October 2021

Image for press release - Writtle University College, Land and Wildlife Management student Cameron Alston at the Essex Coast
(NOTE: This is an archived press release.)

Student Cameron Alston is passionate about making a difference to the environment.

In summer 2021, he carried out volunteer work for The Essex Seagrass Project.

Seagrass plants and meadows have the potential to sequester and store huge amounts of carbon dissolved in our seas, making them an important natural solution to the climate change crisis.

The Essex Seagrass Project aims to protect and restore seagrass meadows and inform future management.

Cameron explained: "It has been a good project to work on and a real eye opener. Our team started with two volunteers and ended with a three-person team for some of the surveys.

"It allowed me to interact with different people wanting to help with our local environment and I found it interesting to see the different ways of working with all the surveyors for this project and those who want to make a difference to the seagrass beds which will help protect the wildlife habit."

The project is a branch of Natural England's EU LIFE Recreation ReMEDIES project (Reducing and Mitigation of Erosion and Disturbance Impacts Affecting Seabed).

Cameron worked with Alan Kavanagh, the Essex Site lead for the ReMEDIES Project, to share information on working as a volunteer.


Becoming a Citizen Scientist

"After a short training session, I was allocated two local sites: Thorpe Bay and Shoebury Common Beach. My colleague and I had 12 observation periods to complete.

"We aimed to observe the diverse nature of recreational activities, and map boat locations in relation to seagrass beds around Essex.

"The coastline was divided into sites which were monitored by Citizen Scientists. They each completed six surveys between July and August 2021.

"Observations were made at low and high tides monitoring the weather, temperature, wind speed and direction and cloud cover.

"Data was collected on recreational activities within a 500m radius of where we were stationed including compass bearing, type of vessel and distance. Also included in the data were additional activities that were taking place at that time e.g. kayaking, swimming, jet skiing and paddle boarding.

"It was observed that Shoebury Common Beach was much busier with a larger number of boats as it is the base for a yacht club so there was a lot more activity to observe at this site.

"There will be further observations made in the future to see if any difference has occurred in the amount of seagrass, and in recreational behaviours before the project ends in October 2023."

"I hope to be taking part in future seagrass monitoring sessions and I would recommend this project to anyone wishing to take part in a volunteering project as it is important to raise awareness of the decline of seagrass along the Essex Coastline."

Why observe the Essex coastline?

With 350 miles of varied coastline, Essex provides unique opportunities to get out and enjoy the coastal environment. From metal detecting for military artefacts in the muds around Canvey, taking five minutes to relax on the sandy beaches of Frinton, to spotting the world's largest container ships in Harwich port.

Not forgetting that Essex is home to schools of harbour porpoise, massive seal breeding colonies, endangered seahorse, and on the migratory route of thousands of seabirds seeking shelter from harsh Arctic winters. It is therefore important that human interaction with such fragile wildlife is managed so that natural behaviours are undisturbed.

Through collecting information on recreational use, we can build up an overview of possible pressures on fragile habitats such as seagrass meadows.

In Essex, seagrass fills an important role in the diet of many seasonal birds who like to feast on it during the autumn months, but unfortunately it is at only 2% of its historic maximum extent.

Using the recreational data, together with seagrass maps, we can see highlight areas that need a little extra protect whether it is from boat moorings scouring the seabed, trampling by walkers, or being dug up by bait diggers.

With this information Natural England and the Essex Wildlife Trust can look to improve management so that the seagrass can thrive and continue to support wonderful communities of wildlife.

Management can look like, restricting access at certain times of the year to ensure seabirds are undisturbed, trialling innovative mooring methods to reduce chain scour, and working to educate local populations, tourists, and children about our fragile but fantastic habitats.

Seagrass is also an important carbon store in our joint fight against climate change. It has an extraordinary ability to absorb Carbon Dioxide from the atmosphere and trap it within the accumulated sediments at each tide (which helps protect against flooding) or turning it into plant matter through photosynthesis.

See... isn't seagrass wonderful!