Building bird sanctuaries with London′s mud | Environment| All topics from climate change to conservation | DW | 17.09.2013
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Building bird sanctuaries with London's mud

A British bird protection society and a rail network have come together to build Europe's largest habitat creation project. The reclaimed natural landscape is made from soil excavated from beneath London's streets.

Chris Tyas is casting his binoculars over the landscape of Wallasea Island. Long banks of mud and grass stretch out in front of him. Twelve years ago the land here didn't exist, at least not in the shape in which it currently appears.

In fact, the landscape is the result of years of human intervention. Britain's Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) purchased the land in 2000. Wallasea, as it is commonly known around here, is now Europe's largest habitat creation project.

"What we're looking to do is take this blank landscape and create new intertidal habitats," Tyas, the project manager at the site, explains.

Chris Tyas looking at the landscape on Wallasea

Project manager, Chris Tyas surveying the landscape.

The project will involve RSPB developing some 670 hectares of replacement saltmarsh and mudflats. The main objectives of the project are to prevent an unmanaged breach of the sea wall and to create safe havens for native wildlife.

Tyas' personal passion for the project is clear. Walking around the 15 kilometers of new trails which wind around the island, he points out the pink sea clover which has "found a niche" on the sea wall, and makes cautious predictions about the bird species he hopes to attract to the area, like breeding spoonbills and Kentish plovers. Both of these native birds are now a rarity on English soil.

A chance encounter

The Wallasea Island project was originally conceived on a considerably smaller scale. But in 2009, the RSPB received a phone call which changed everything.

Terry Morgan was on the other end of the line. He is the chairman of Crossrail, a new railway network currently being built to link central London with towns in south east England. As part of the project, eight tunnel-drilling machines excavate tons of soil every week from below the British capital. Morgan thought that the removed earth could be of use to the Wallasea Island project.

"It sounded quite wacky to start with," Chris Tyas admits, "but when you think it through, it makes perfect sense." Slowly, a plan emerged. Terry Morgan's team would deliver the soil from beneath the busy, grimy streets of London, where it has lain for millennia, to the reclaimed natural landscape at Wallasea.

"For us, the thought of thousands of additional trucks moving down Bond Street or Oxford Street in London would be unthinkable," Morgan comments in his Whitehall office. It was integral to his vision of Crossrail that the soil be removed using sustainable transport methods, by rail and ship.

At 30 meters down, the removed soil no longer bears the archaeological legacy of civilisation, and is free to be used at the Wallasea site, Morgan explains.

How to build an island

The journey taken by a single shipment of material from London's Tottenham Court Road station to the Wallasea site is a logistical challenge. Soil is removed from a tunnel at a rail-head just west of London's Paddington station, and is carried by rail to a wharf in East London, where four times a day a ship takes it onward to its final destination.

At Wallasea, Crossrail have installed an unloading facility. From there, the conveyor belt brings the material ashore to the spreader, and that deposits the material in an arc which is then removed to create the habitats elsewhere on the island.

According to Tyas, the Wallasea Island site will be completed by 2017 and is set to accommodate human as well as avian visitors. 14,000 birds already use the parts of the island which have been redeveloped, and Tyas expects up to 50,000 at the winter peak in the future.

A high number of tourists are also expected to come annually, both to bird-watch and to reconnect with the region's traditional past-times, such as salt-refining and oyster farming. Both Morgan and Tyas hope the project will pave the way for similar collaborations in the future.

For the chairman of Crossrail, Terry Morgan, the Wallasea Island project is something to be proud of. "When you see it in person you realise you're making something very different," he told DW. "This is not a construction project, this is a regeneration program."

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