On Thursday 10 January, the National Trust was one of four environment and conservation organisations invited to give evidence at a Select Committee inquiry into the latest proposals for a Severn Barrage.
Discussions about a barrage have been taking place for many decades and the latest proposal, from private consortium Hafren Power and backed by Peter Hain MP, is for an 18km barrage between Brean in England and Lavernock Point in Wales, which would generate 5% of UK electricity.
The Trust owns Brean Down on the Somerset coastline, an SSSI, which along with other sites would be directly impacted. But we are also concerned about the impacts of a barrage on the broader landscape and seascape, and on the estuary itself. We haven’t seen detailed plans for the current proposals, but believe the barrage would be visible from Exmoor, the Mendips, the Quantocks, the Somerset Levels, Gwent Levels and Caldicot and Wentloog Levels.
MPs invited the National Trust alongside the RSPB, Wetland and Wildfowl Trust and Angler’s Trust to give evidence at their inquiry. The Committee, chaired by Tim Yeo MP, questioned the witnesses for nearly an hour on the impacts of the proposed barrage on Impacts on flooding, morphology, countryside and coast, EU Birds and Habitats Directives, compensation habitat required, tourism, and Hafren Power’s claims regarding calmer, clearer water, and increased biodiversity upstream as a result of the barrage.
Dr Simon Pryor, Natural Environment Director, gave evidence on behalf of the Trust, and said afterwards: “The Severn Estuary offers huge potential to generate renewable energy and presents exciting opportunities to harness tidal power, which we fully support. But, it is also internationally important in terms of wildlife and habitats, landscapes and seascapes, and sites of historic and archaeological interest.
“We absolutely need to harness clean energy. But we need to do it in a way that minimises impacts on the natural environment, and, if we do it well, offers environmental gains.
“We are yet to see concrete, evidence-based plans on the latest proposal so can’t say if we would support them or not. However, in our view the single barrage option would bring significant environmental damage and would fundamentally change the natural processes of the estuary.
“The National Trust would like to see more proposals to harness the Severn’s power using smaller scale, diverse technologies which would have less impact on the estuaries complex natural system than a big barrage, and could be replicable elsewhere.”
Why is the Severn Estuary so important? The Severn Estuary (Môr Hafren) is the estuary of four major rivers – the Severn, Wye, Usk and Avon. The estuary’s funnel shape, unique in Britain, is a factor causing the Severn to have the second-largest tidal range in the world, creating an extensive intertidal zone of mudflats, sand banks, shingle, and rocky platforms. The Severn Estuary is recognised as a wetland area of international importance and is designated as a Ramsar site, Special Protection Area (SPA) for Wild Birds, and a Special Area of Conservation (SAC) under the EU Habitats Directive.
The estuary is a key migration route to fish spawning grounds in the many tributaries that flow into it. The Angler’s Trust estimate that 25% of all salmonid spawning habitat in England and Wales lies upstream of the proposed barrage, but the estuary is also a migratory route for sea trout, sea lamprey, river lamprey, allis shad, twaite shad and eel. The fish of the whole estuarine and river system is one of the most diverse in Britain, with over 110 species recorded, and the estuary is important as a feeding and nursery ground for many fish species.
The estuary is also of particular importance for migratory birds during spring and autumn, particularly wading birds. This is why the Wildfowl and Wetland Trust was established at its site at Slimbridge.