Tuesday, 27 May 2014

Severn Estuary Research Continues

A few days ago I had the pleasure of paying a visit to the Aust Goddess (figurine; replica) and Gail Boyle (museum curator; real). This Iron-age/early Roman bronze figurine was found around 1900 at the muddy coast of Aust, on the Severn Estuary near Bristol. The original now resides in the British Museum in London...
Not only does the form display an elegant simplicity but the uncovering of two similar statuettes on or near the Severn coast suggests - to me - a practice of votive offerings to these life-giving (and taking...) dynamic tidal waters. (On the head is a broad, flat, crescentric head-dress, with a lunar appearance) It is the endless geo/eco/tidal changes of this land-waterscape - and related human and non-human activity - that frame my current Sabrina Dreaming explorations.

British Museum 1900,1019.1
My quest for the Aust Goddess will continue. Meanwhile, after the museum visit I was immediately whisked away from Bristol's Floating Harbour on a boat trip down the River Avon to the sea (i.e. the Severn Estuary), and back again. This was aboard The Tower Belle, in the company of the Learning Ships project imaginatively involving groups of young people in the city in (re-)connections to environment, heritage and culture, especially relating to the city+river relationships. On this trip, the group of 'learners with attitude' was a class from Cotham School. For me, the confluence with Sabrina Dreaming was of course most pertinent when the Belle reached the mouth of the Avon. Here, there was talk of gibbets and pilots and - it being the day before World Fish Migration Day, I took the opportunity to show a photo of a fearsome mouth of a Lamprey - as a way of introducing a list of the most abundant fish species found at this point of the Severn. How many of the list below are edible? This prompted a discussion of a fish-feast of the Severn (an installation?..or simply a meal to share?). But perhaps more apposite questions may have been: How many of these species are still in serious decline?; How might they be affected by the proposed new tidal lagoons, barrages and nuclear power stations?

(Coincidently, I learnt that our vessel The Tower Belle was abandoned, no longer considered river-worthy, at the appropriately named Eel Pie Island on the River Thames in 1976. She was found there by the owner of the Bristol Packet Boat company)

attempting some underwater photography : see below for results

The list of most abundant Severn fish species was sent to me (in response to my urgent request via Twitter) by the font of all fishery knowledge -namely Libby Ross of the Severn & Devon IFCA. I'd met Libby a week earlier on the Somerset coast of the Severn, along with Shelley Vince (new in post at the Severn Estuary Partnership), and Natasha Bradshaw (a former co-ordinator of the SEP). The aim of the day at the coast was to share info, and help familiarise ourselves with this part of the coast and some of its issues - especially biodiversity and ecosystem-related. And possible changes on the horizon e.g the new nuclear power station at Hinkley Point; a proposed tidal lagoon in Bridgwater Bay; and the ambitious realignment of the coast at Steart. At this last site, we met Tim McGrath and Alys Laver of the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust (WWT), who explained the plan - the culmination of which in this coming September will be the breaching of the existing sea defences to allow the high tides in to form the new salt-marsh. Due to a combination of factors particular to the Severn Estuary, such as the huge tidal range, the presence of other well established salt marshes nearby and the continual mixing of the sea water between these sites, the saltmarsh should develop relatively rapidly on Steart Peninsula. 

Steart image : via WWT website
Former coastline and salt marsh zones
The sea reclaiming its own?
an inexorable process along this and many coasts. Very near Steart another substantial zone of realignment/retreat will be created by the RSPB in a few years. Further to the west, at Porlock, the National Trust has long adopted a policy of managed retreat. The protective shingle ridge was breached in 1996 and following regular tidal inundation the farmland behind has developed into a richly diverse saltmarsh habitat.

In this recent press article, Andrew Cooper, professor of coastal studies at the University of Ulster says: "The approach to coastal change management being adopted by the National Trust is exactly the type of adaptive approach that we will need to embrace as we face extremes of weather set against the backdrop of a changing climate and rising sea level. We cannot afford to, nor is it desirable, to try and engineer our way out of this"

Amongst our estuarine excursion group (above), there was clearly a shared passion for the dynamic vitality of the estuary, and all its flows - physical, cultural and wildlife-related. As noted previously, I am particularly interested in the cooling water intakes at Hinkley Point (both existing and planned power stations) and the planned Oldbury power station. The quantities of fish removed from these screens dwarf the numbers caught by the traditional ‘mudhorse fishermen' and other age-old techniques used on the Severn coast. More on this in the next instalment.

Finally, the first rough 'n ready sample clips of sub-aqua footage:

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