Managing the Retreat: Understanding the transition to salt marsh in coastal realignment projects
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Managed realignment is now widely seen as an important part of coastal management strategy, as an environmentally sustainable, cost-effective alternative to traditional, hard defences. However, the trajectory of salt marsh development in managed realignment schemes remains uncertain and it is unclear how sites should be managed to fulfil both coastal defence and biodiversity objectives. In this study, the overarching aim is to find out ways in which we can create salt marshes that are self-sustaining and function as closely to natural ecosystems as possible, by considering the linked biogeomorphological processes in salt marsh ecosystems. Such an approach will improve predictions of habitat development and recommendations for future practice in managed realignment schemes. The first important question is: How do pre-alignment plant species growing within managed realignment sites respond to salt water inundation upon re-exposure to flooding? Understanding the responses of the terrestrial vegetation community to initial seawater flooding may improve predictions of the short-term transition into salt marsh vegetation. To answer this, the effects of seawater inundation on pre-existing vegetation are initially examined in a greenhouse experiment in Chapter 3. It was demonstrated that one common plant species component of many coastal grasslands, Trifolium repens, responds poorly to simulated seawater soil flooding, but the response is population-, i.e. ecotype-, specific; therefore, the species consequently has an adaptive capacity to withstand short periods of soil inundation by seawater. In addition, I look at how and why the vegetation community of a restored site transitions following the reintroduction of tidal water, including the response of the original community of non-salt marsh plant species to salt water inundation and subsequent salt marsh plant community reassembly. After three years of tidal inundation at South Efford managed realignment site (SEM), terrestrial vegetation had decreased in cover and nearly all species recorded on the adjacent natural marsh had colonised. However, the cover of salt marsh species was limited by waterlogging, caused by modifications to the tidal regime by a self-regulating tidal gate. This leads on to the second question: How do new engineering techniques alter the tidal regime and what specific aspects of the new regime drive plant community reassembly and sedimentation patterns? In Chapters 4, 5 and 6, three years of ecological and geomorphological development are investigated in response to a variable inundation regime imposed by regulated tidal exchange at SEM. Inundation of the marsh surface was very regular, but water levels were not deep enough to encourage sufficient morphological development, sedimentation nor hydrochory. In contrast, ecological development was limited by waterlogging. Balancing the tidal regime with the drainage efficiency of managed realignment sites may be the most likely scenario under which restored salt marsh will develop with maximum biodiversity benefits. Otherwise, further management techniques, such as the excavation of tidal channels, may need to be employed to improve site drainage. Consequently, the final question is: How can biodiversity be maximized on realignment sites through the use of different management techniques and site design? Tidal channels on a range of managed and natural sites were shown to improve the drainage efficiency of adjacent soils (particularly channels of greater width and/or higher Strahler order). Plant species diversity was generally higher on channel banks in managed realignment sites. On sites with highly reduced soils, the colonisation and establishment of halophytes could be advanced on the banks of tidal channels. Additionally, topographic heterogeneity introduced by tidal channels created a variety of habitat niches, which allowed a range of salt marsh species to establish in the absence of highly competitive species, such as Elymus repens. Results from this study could contribute to the generation of a number of recommendations for the implementation of managed realignment schemes, particularly regarding the excavation of tidal creek networks.
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