Students Staff

15 January 2013

Secrets of the Essex salt marshes

Essex mud flats

Scientists from across the UK are taking part in a special project in Essex to find out more about the effects of climate change.

The group, involving academics from the Essex and led by the University of St Andrews, are spending two weeks in Essex salt marshes, investigating the increasing demands placed upon nature by a growing population.

The scientists say that society must find a way of managing land better if we are to continue to benefit from nature’s helping hand.

The team will look at natural systems, such as mudflats, and their role in benefits such as the purification of water, the production of food and the protection of coastlines, as well as the provision of habitat for wildlife and recreational space for humans.

The land on the Essex estuaries at Fingringhoe Wick Nature Reserve, Abbotts Hall Farm and Tillingham Marshes, are ideal study areas as they are representative of the Essex coastline.

The data collected will be used to establish why a diverse population of microbes, plants and animals is important in the provision of natural services.

The initiative is part of a six-year programme funded by NERC (Natural Environment Research Council), involving a consortium of 14 research institutions – called CBESS (Coastal Biodiversity and Ecosystem Service Sustainability).

Professor Graham Underwood, from the University of Essex, said: “Our focus for the project is on the microbiology of the marshes and sediments − the hidden diversity of bacteria, algae, micro-animals, that are the engine houses of nutrient cycling and carbon cycling in sediments.”

Consortium Leader, Professor David Paterson, of the University of St Andrews said: “The natural systems that underpin the delivery of nature’s services that society enjoys, such as clean water, food and protection from flooding, are being increasingly challenged by climate change and the need to feed a rapidly growing planet.

“Our landscapes need to be managed correctly to ensure that society continues to benefit from nature’s services in the future. If we are to continue to benefit from these services, we need to understand the links between the diversity of microbes, plants and animals and the services that they provide.”

Mudflats and salt marshes are common features of the coast and make-up over half of the UK's total estuarine area. These landscapes support a wide range of economically valuable animal and plant species. For example, certain plant species provide stability to the sediment which can in turn reduce the risk of flooding.

Following the Essex trip, the team will move west to Morecambe Bay to collect data at West Plain, Cartmel Sands and Warton Sands. Further studies will then be undertaken in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.


Note to Editors

To interview Professor Graham Underwood, please contact the University of Essex Communications Office on: 01206 872400 or e-mail:

To interview Professor David Paterson, please call: 07769955264 or contact Meriem Kayoueche-Reeve (CBESS Project Officer) on: 01334 463613.



The study is part of a six year programme funded by NERC (National Environment Research Council) in 2011 called BESS (Biodiversity & Ecosystem Service Sustainability). BESS is made up of four research consortia which aim to understand these links in urban, coastal, lowland agricultural and upland river environments.

CBESS (Coastal Biodiversity & Ecosystem Service Sustainability) is a consortium made up of 14 research institutions, universities and organisations that is concerned with the welfare and management of coastal systems.

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