Coastal Grazing Marsh

  1. Habitats explorer
  2. Coastal
  3. Coastal Grazing Marsh

© D Lavash

What are they?

Strictly speaking, relatively few of the UK’s coastal grazing marshes could ever have been described as truly natural. Most have been reclaimed from the sea by drainage and embankments. A network of ditches, for much of the year containing standing brackish or fresh water, allows water levels to be manipulated and the marshes to be kept wet during the drier months. As their name implies, most coastal marshes are grazed, although some are cut for hay or silage.

Where are they found?

Coastal and floodplain grazing marsh is found on low-lying loose soils and occasionally peat soils, around estuaries and along the floodplains of rivers. The precise extent of UK grazing marsh is unknown.  The best estimate is 300,000 ha, of which two-thirds are found in England.  However, only some 10,000 ha are semi-natural habitat, and the area of coastal grazing marsh is likely to be significantly less since these figures include floodplain grazing marshes.

Why are they important?

Often found in a matrix of other habitats such as fen, reed-swamp and saltmarsh (from which they have often been reclaimed), coastal grazing marshes can be distinguished by the vegetation and wildlife which they support.  Rough, rushy marshland is complemented by closer-cropped patches of grassland, seasonally water-filled hollows and more permanent ponds. Grazing marshes are particularly important for the number of breeding waders such as snipe, redshank, lapwing and curlew which they attract.  They also support internationally significant populations of wintering wildfowl, including Bewick and whooper swans.

Many invertebrate species, particularly some of the less common ones, are associated with ditches or dykes and saturated ground rather than with the grass sward itself.  Drainage channels support some 130 of Britain’s 170 species of brackish and freshwater vascular plants, and remain the stronghold for many coastal water beetles. 

Are they threatened?

During the last century, coastal grazing marshes have declined considerably in quantity and quality. Between the early 1930s and mid-1980s, 64% of grazing marsh was lost in the greater Thames, 48% in Romney Marsh and 37% in Broadland.  Direct causes of habitat loss include insensitive flood-defence works, deep drainage and ploughing for arable crops or fodder grasses.  More insidious changes have resulted from ground water abstraction, aggregate extraction and rising sea levels.  Many of the remaining grazing marshes still face similar threats, as well as risk of pollution, eutrophication, or neglect.  Maintenance or seasonal raising of water levels and sympathetic grazing or cutting are essential to conserve the intrinsic interest of our grazing marshes.

Publicity and guidance on managing drainage channels for nature conservation, environmentally friendly flood defence and water level management plans are all helping to redress the loss of grazing marsh.  So too are and financial incentives included within agri-environment and habitat schemes to encourage grazing marsh management.  But these are still only part of the answer.  Increased funding and further action is needed to prevent continued loss and deterioration of the UK’s grazing marshes, and the wealth of wildlife which they support.

How are The Wildlife Trusts helping?

Wildlife Trusts are working to prevent further loss of our coastal and floodplain grazing marsh by looking after areas as nature reserves. We use traditional management techniques, such as hay-cutting and grazing, to maintain them, and we are re-wetting and restoring areas that have become too dry, for example through drainage schemes 

Across the UK The Wildlife Trusts also provide advice and guidance for landowners and farmers on wildlife-friendly practices in these areas. By ensuring that the land surrounding our reserves is looked after sympathetically for wildlife, we can create A Living Landscape: a network of habitats and wildlife corridors across town and country, which are good for both wildlife and people.

What can I do to help?

• Take part in conservation measures on your land – ask your local Wildlife Trust for advice on grazing and management methods for grazing marshes.
• Support the work of The Wildlife Trusts across the UK and become a member of your local Trust.
• Volunteer with your local Wildlife Trust and help your local marshland wildlife; you could be involved in everything from scrub-cutting to wildflower surveying.
• Support wildlife-friendly, traditionally managed farms by purchasing direct from local farms.