Wildlife designations

The Exe Estuary is one of the most highly designated sites in the South West recognised at an International, European and National level.

Map of the designated boundaries on the Exe Estuary

Map of the designated boundaries at Dawlish Warren

As well as these statutory designations, the Exe Estuary has voluntary areas that are of particular importance to wildlife. Find out more about these designations and areas, and why the Exe has qualified.

  • Ramsar sites take their name from the location of the first meeting of the Convention on Wetlands of International Importance, which was held in Ramsar, Iran in 1971.  The designation is attributed to wetland sites of international importance.  Originally this primarily focused on sites that were of international importance to birds but the scope of the designation has now been extended and recognises wetlands as an ecosystem that are extremely important for biodiversity conservation in general and for the well-being of human communities.

    As a result the designation is one of the few that affords protection to the whole community or ecosystem rather than specific species.  The Convention requires governments protect wetlands and encourage the wise use of wetland areas.

    The first UK Ramsar site was designated in 1976 and there are now 146 recognised within the UK . The UK has a fairly high proportion of the total international sites designated although they tend to be over a smaller area than some countries.

    More information on Ramsar sites can be found on the JNCC website.

  • SPA’s are a European designation classified in accordance with the EC Directive on the Conservation of Wild Birds.  The designation is attributed to sites for rare and vulnerable birds, listed in Annex 1 of the birds directive, and for regularly occurring migratory species.  The first UK site to be designated was in the 1980’s and there are now more than 250 sites that have joined that list.

    The designation requires EC member states to take measures to conserve, create and manage a sufficient diversity and area of habitats for all wild bird species, including the creation and management of protected areas and the re-establishment of habitats, and that populations of wild birds be maintained at a level that corresponds in particular to ecological, scientific and cultural requirements.

    Under the EU Habitats Regulations (1994) the Exe Estuary (including Dawlish Warren) is designated as a Special Protection Area (SPA) because it supports internationally important populations of birds such as the Slavonian Grebe and the Avocet, as well as Brent Goose, Dunlin, Oystercatcher, Blacktailed Godwit and Grey Plover. Natural England (NE) must work with other bodies around the Exe Estuary to ensure that the condition of the habitat and the status of the birds within the SPA is favourable so careful monitoring and management is an ongoing activity.

    The Exe qualifies, under article 4.2 of the designation, for it’s internationally important population of more than 20,000 wintering wildfowl and waders including:

    • Black-tailed Godwit (Limosa limosa islandica)
    • Dunlin (Calidris alpina alpine)
    • Lapwing (Vanellus vanellus)
    • Grey Plover (Pluvialis squatarola)
    • Oystercatcher (Haematopus ostralegus)
    • Red-breasted Merganser (Mergus serrator)
    • Wigeon (Anas Penelope)
    • Dark-bellied Brent Goose (Branta bernicla bernicla)
    • Cormorant (Phalacrocorax carbo)
    • Avocet (Recurvirostra avosetta),

    The Exe also qualifies under article 4.1 of the directive by supporting populations of European importance.  This includes the Annex 1 bird species the Avocet (Recurvirostra avosetta) and Slavonian Grebe (Podiceps auritus).  The average number of avocets visiting each year, taken from a 5 year average in the early nineties, is 359 individuals, which represents at least 28% of the wintering population in the UK.  The average number of Slavonian Grebe is 20 individuals representing at least 5% of the wintering population in the UK (source Information: JNCC).

    Conservation objectives are agreed for the SPA and are the starting point from which management schemes and monitoring programmes may be developed. The Exe Estuary Management Partnership is the body which brings together the organisations responsible for managing the Exe Estuary SPA in order to agree and deliver the Management Plan. The SPA designation means that the potential impact of proposed plans or projects must be assessed.  NE use appropriate assessments to gauge the conservation implications for the site and will provide consent only once it has been proven that the proposal will not adversely affect the conservation value of the site.

    If you are planning a new activity or development on or around the Exe Estuary please seek guidance on the planning process, and the types of licenses or consents that might be required. More information on habitat mitigation in the Exe area can be given by your local district council.

    If you think that an offence has been committed under the Habitats Regulations or the Wildlife and Countryside Act, please contact Natural England.

  • The SSSI designation was first developed in 1949 in order to provide statutory protection for sites offering the best examples of the UK’s biodiversity as well as geological or physiographical features.  In 1981 the designation was renotified under the Wildlife and Countryside Act and has been further amended by the Countryside and Rights of Way Act in 2000 and the Nature Conservation Act 2004.

    Since 1986 the Exe Estuary has been designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) in recognition of its international importance for wintering wildfowl and waders, its rare plant species (mostly on Exminster Marshes), and the fact that the sandbanks and mudflats support nationally significant populations of invertebrates. Orcombe Rocks are also included as a key geological feature of the site.

    Natural England (NE) is committed to the careful and effective management of SSSI sites to ensure that they are not damaged and that every opportunity is taken to enhance nature conservation. As part of the management, the SSSI designation requires local planning authorities to consult Natural England about planning applications on land near to and likely to affect a SSSI and places a duty on public bodies to further the conservation and enhancement of SSSI’s.

    A landowner (or occupier) must request permission from Natural England to carry out any activity that may be harmful to the special interest features of the SSSI.  A person is liable to a fine of up to £20,000 if they are convicted of carrying out, without reasonable excuse, an operation which damages the site and they may be ordered to restore the land to its former condition.

    It is an offence for anybody to damage a SSSI, which carries a penalty fine of up to £2,500. A list of the ‘Operations Likely to Damage’ the site can be found on Table 3, page 29, of:
    Natural England’s advice given under Regulation 33(2) of the Conservation (Natural Habitats &c.) Regulations 1994

  • SAC’s are a European designation awarded to sites that will make a significant contribution to conserving  the habitats and species listed on Appendix I and II of the directive.  The listed habitats and species are those considered to be most in need of conservation at a European level.

    Dawlish Warren is a designated SAC for its Annex I habitat of humid dune slacks, which support a population of the Annex II species petalwort Petalophyllum ralfsii for which the site is also selected.  The site is also considered due to its shifting dunes and fixed dunes (source information: JNCC).

  • The 207 hectares of Dawlish Warren that is designated as a national and Local Nature Reserve encompasses a nationally important range of habitats and the plants and animals that these support.  Botanically it is an incredibly rich area with 620 species of plant, including the Early Meadow Grass and the Warren Crocus.  The site also supports over 2000 different species of invertebrates including the Ruddy Darter, Hairy Dragonflies, and the Scarlet and Jersey Tiger Moths.  In total over 583 different species of flowering plants have been recorded and over 260 species of fungi.

    The shores and mudflats around Warren Point are the main high tide roost for wading birds that use the Estuary.  They are also important for the nationally important populations of Slavonian Grebe and for large congregations of sea ducks, divers, grebes and other bird species.

  • The estuarine section of the Exmouth Local Nature Reserve is a good site to observe evidence of natural regeneration and ecological succession.  The tidal mudflats are highly productive and the eel grass beds and invertebrates living in the mudflats provide a rich food source for the bird populations.  The large eelgrass Zostera nolti beds are particularly notable.  A nationally rare bristle orm Ophelia bicornis can also be found on the reserve.

  • Two areas to protect wildlife on the Exe Estuary have been put in place. Known as wildlife refuges, the areas are marked out with yellow ‘special mark’ buoys which have an “X” at the top and the words “Wildlife Refuge” printed on them. Smaller yellow marker buoys are placed in between the ‘special mark’ buoys and have “WR” in black letters printed on them. People are being asked to avoid the areas, all year round at Dawlish Warren National Nature Reserve (NNR) and between 15 September to 31 December at Exmouth Local Nature Reserve (LNR).

    At Exmouth LNR, the wildlife refuge protects important feeding areas during low season for a short period of time. The Imperial Recreation Ground slipway can still be used to access the foreshore during this time, although dog walkers are being asked to turn left at the end of the slipway, to avoid the refuge.

    At Dawlish Warren NNR, the wildlife refuge protects important wildlife feeding and resting areas all year round. Both refuges will be monitored to understand the effects on wildlife.

    These key areas for wildlife were approved by the partnership of three councils surrounding the estuary, known as the South East Devon Habitat Regulations Executive Committee (SEDHREC) in October 2017.

    The mild climate and the vast food sources of the Exe mudflats attract tens of thousands of wetland birds, including Avocet, Curlew, Godwit, Dunlin and Brent Geese. On their long migratory journeys from as far away as arctic Siberia, these birds face many challenges and are exhausted when they arrive. Please help us protect them by avoiding the wildlife refuges, as the birds may not survive if they are regularly disturbed.

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    Further Reading:

    European Marine Sites 
    Natural England’s advice given under Regulation 33(2) of the Conservation (Natural Habitats &c.) Regulations 1994
    JNCC Dawlish Warren SAC features