Natural England - Wildlife-friendly reservoir project backed by Natural England

Wildlife-friendly reservoir project backed by Natural England

10 December 2012

A £150 million reservoir expansion project is bringing a host of benefits for wildlife, thanks to a partnership between Essex and Suffolk Water and Natural England.

Abberton Reservoir large image
Abberton Reservoir, near Colchester from the air © Essex and Suffolk Water

The capacity of Abberton Reservoir is being increased by more than 50 per cent, with the successful raising of the dam marked today by a visit from Owen Paterson MP, Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

As well as supplying water to the Essex area, Abberton is one of Europe’s most important wildlife sites, providing a haven for wetland birds such as gadwall and shoveler. It is legally protected as a Special Protection Area (SPA), Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and a Ramsar site.

By forging a close relationship over a number of years Natural England and Essex and Suffolk Water have been able to undertake one of the country’s biggest civil engineering projects and deliver significant gains for both people and wildlife. The project has created more than 200 hectares of habitat, making it an even more valuable site for wildlife than before.

The work has involved raising the height of the dam by three metres – now complete –  which by 2014 will result in volume increasing from 26 billion litres to 41 billion litres and the reservoir area growing from 4.7 million square metres to 6.6 million square metres.

The key to success was early dialogue so that any potential problems were addressed before they could derail the project, avoiding the need for a Public Inquiry.

One of those involved in developing this productive relationship was Phil Sturges, a Natural England Planning Adviser. As part of a dedicated project team he advised Essex and Suffolk Water that a phased construction would be the best approach. This meant the new wildlife habitat was already in place before the planning application was submitted, giving it a much greater chance of approval.

Through the partnership Natural England was able to advise on wider aspects of the project such as a new water transfer pipeline from the Ouse Washes in Fenland, the new reservoir visitor centre with panoramic views and the bridleway and access trails which were specifically set back to avoid interaction with birds.

Phil said: “Abberton is a strategically important site for migrating birds due to its geographical location. Birds such as golden plover, geese and swans regularly return to roost at the reservoir, as do ruff and spotted redshank from the nearby coast.

“The old reservoir had sixteen kilometres of concrete edges whereas the new structure now has gently sloped and soft floating edges, lagoons and other habitat enhancements to attract water voles, waterfowl and newts.”

He added: “The reservoir project took three years to deliver and was the largest modification to an SPA ever, but our extra effort and proactive engagement with the owners has paid off. There are now over 200 hectares of habitat creation, improved access, 1500 new trees planted, hedging and new populations of reptiles and bats. Brown hare and skylark are now regularly seen at the reservoir, and more recently the short-eared owl has been spotted.”

Abberton reservoir near Colchester, which supports 20,000 overwintering waterfowl, was constructed in the 1930s. The need for increased water resources for homes and businesses in the Essex area was recognised 20 years ago and Abberton was identified as the most suitable location. Its expansion is England’s first major reservoir development for 30 years.

Rob Cooke, Natural England’s Director of Land Use, attended the ministerial visit today to celebrate the end of the two-year work to raise the dam.

He said: “I welcome this milestone for Abberton reservoir, which is a magnificent example of what can be achieved when developers and advisers work together from the very outset. I’m delighted that this project has both protected wildlife habitat and enhanced it, as well as opening it up to the public.

“The fact that a civil engineering project of this size can deliver such a boost to the natural environment proves that economic growth and environmental conservation can go hand in hand.”

David Alborough, Property Manager for Essex and Suffolk Water, said: “We engaged with Natural England at an early stage – more than six years before putting in a planning application. We built up a great deal of trust which became beneficial for both sides and, indeed, for the wildlife.”

Heidi Mottram, Chief Executive of Northumbrian Water Limited of which Essex and Suffolk Water is a part, said: "The completion of the dam raising at Abberton Reservoir takes us a big step towards completion of this essential upgrade to the region’s infrastructure.

"With the recent wet weather and flooding, it can be easy to forget the importance of ensuring that we have sufficient supplies of water for homes and businesses in the future.

"The enlargement of the reservoir provides supplies to meet future demand, while at the same time significantly enhancing the environment."