Rich in habitats and marine life – our Marine Conservation Zone is a real gem

by Susan Gilbert

When we stand by the beach huts at West St Leonards and look out to sea, what are we looking at?

We can see waves, gulls, clouds; we watch the rise and fall of the tides.  Sometimes there are stormy breakers thundering on the shingle, pounding the water to a frenzy of spindrift and spume. 

On a different day we can see clear, calm water lapping at the exposed rocks with a light breeze causing the merest ruffle on the surface of the lagoons. 

It’s very beautiful, poetic and now it is it’s now also a Marine Conservation Zone.

A Marine Conservation Zone  is one of four types of Marine Protected Areas and West St Leonards seashore falls into the recently formed Beachy Head East Marine Conservation Zone (MCZ).  This is an area of sea around 200 square kilometres, which is demarked out to sea by the Royal Sovereign Lighthouse and runs around the shoreline from Beachy Head Lighthouse to Hastings Pier.  This seems slightly strange as an MCZ concerns itself with the natural environment yet is marked by manmade structures, but at least they are recognisable.

The view out to sea the beach huts at West St Leonards.

Before the 2009 Marine Act, there was hardly any environmental protection for our seas, but a lot of progress has been made.

Today there are 355 Marine Protected Areas around the British Isles, which sounds like plenty although they only cover 25 per cent of the UK’s waters. However they do include 37 per cent of the actual coastline, including 91 MCZ’s one of which now covers our shoreline and sea. 

MCZ’s and the three other types of Marine Protected Areas are intended to form the UK contribution to an international network of protected sites in the north east Atlantic. The objective of this network is to help ensure we all have clean, healthy, safe, productive and biologically diverse seas.  MCZ’s aim is to specifically protect the natural environment of the seabed, coastline and typical, rare or declining habitats and species.

The Wildlife Trusts carried out surveys of the Beachy Head East MCZ and they have described our area as: “Rich in habitats and marine life, this site is a real gem!” 

It includes sandstone reefs and rare chalk reefs. Chalk is familiar to everyone living in Sussex, but undersea chalk is a globally rare habitat and we have a large proportion in UK waters.

Piddock Holes in Chalk Pebbles found near the Beach Huts.

The largest chalk seascapes are mainly in the English Channel around Sussex and Kent, we have 75 per cent of all European chalk reefs right here. 

This underwater soft chalk is pitted by holes created by rock-boring piddocks.

A piddock is no relation to the pollock, that’s a fish related to coley and good for eating. Neither should a piddock be confused with a pillock! This very harmful species is easy to spot littering our beaches and has been known to endanger the ocean by dumping garbage at sea and flushing out dirty tanks in deeper waters. 

A piddock on the other hand is an exciting (it glows in the dark!) and beneficial type of long clam which bores its way into soft rocks as it grows and spends up to eight years living in there. Once empty, piddock holes can also house crabs, sponges, anemones and worms.  Chalk reefs also provide good nurseries for important fish including plaice, herring and Dover sole. 

Beachcombings, or litter discarded by Pillocks?

Our ‘real gem’ spreads out to sea as far as the Royal Sovereign Shoals which house the Royal Sovereign Lighthouse.

Have you ever wondered what that strange T shaped thing on the horizon towards Eastbourne is?  This lighthouse replaced a lightship in 1971 and includes a helipad, hence its shape. It was decommissioned in 2019 due to structural deterioration and should be removed over the summer of 2020.  It will not be replaced; the Beachy Head Lighthouse has been upgraded to hopefully protect shipping. 

Oast House Archive / Royal Sovereign light tower

Provided there are no shipwrecks, the Royal Sovereign Shoals, which are mainly sandstone with a few chalky outcrops, will remain wildlife rich.  Species recorded right there included cod, pouting, wrasse, crabs, blennies, sponges, anemones, sea squirts, bryozoans – which resemble seaweed but are actually coral like colonies of small animals – soft corals, tube worms and starfish as well as many species of seaweed. 

Other rocky shoals and reefs out to sea will have similar varieties of wildlife.  

Closer to shore, our MCZ includes the rock formations which appear on our stretch of beach at low tide and are known as Bopeep Rocks.

These with Goat Ledge by Warrior Square, and the My Lord’s, Lane End and Bar Beach Rocks at Bexhill  provide more challenging environment for wildlife, which has to cope with the rising and falling tides, while the shoals out to sea are mostly submerged whatever the state of the tide.

We nonetheless have plenty of hardy wildlife here by the beach, including anemones, barnacles, blennies, crabs, hermit crabs, limpets, lugworms, mussels, razor clams, shrimp, slipper limpets, whelks and I’m sure you can name more.  All these can provide a more natural diet than human leftovers for the gulls, turnstones, cormorants and other sea birds.

Bopeep Rocks at Low Tide.

Other exciting species found in our MCZ include the short-snouted seahorse. These tiny fish live in rocky areas and in seagrass but also amongst kelp, which is more important than the pretty seahorses and should be exciting, although it just looks brown and slimy. 

At school, decades ago, we were taught there were two types of living things, animals and plants, however biology has moved on; all seaweeds are algae, which is neither. Kelps are large brown algae which live in temperate and cool seas and can grow and proliferate fast if left alone. 

Kelp forests once surrounded British shores, but human activity has destroyed most of them, yet the UK still has the most diverse community of kelp species compared to any other country in Europe, with seven out of the 14 European species.

Short Snouted Seahorse, Attribution: © Hans Hillewaert

Kelp forests play a vital role in the carbon cycle of the whole planet, capturing 75per cent of the net carbon fixed annually in the sea. They really are as important as forests on land for carbon capture. 

Kelp forests can also help reduce coastal erosion by serving as a buffer against strong waves. Kelp needs rocks to cling to and, unlike tree roots, kelp roots act as anchor or holdfast, clinging to stones and reefs, providing a suitable environment for seahorses and numerous other creatures including young fish of many species. 

As climate change creates more severe weather, kelp forests are increasingly important for holding carbon and reducing acidity in the sea, which has been rising as greenhouse gases increase.  The Sussex Inshore Fisheries and Conservation Authority (IFCA) has become the first English regulator to propose a bylaw to ban trawling specifically to restore habitat.  Kelp growing in our MCZ will contribute and, with a ban on dredging, dumping and trawling, existing kelp beds could expand. 

If you are concerned about where your fish and chips or king scallop au gratin comes from, we do have sustainable fish, such as plaice and herring, which breed and are caught in our MCZ without damaging populations.

Cod and Dover sole, although they also breed in this zone, are not currently regarded as sustainable here, however you can eat Cornish caught Dover sole with a clearer conscience. 

Dab and mackerel aren’t commercially fished in this area, but they are not scarce and are easy to catch locally, even from the beach. Locally caught scallops are not usually sustainable, as they are dredged from the seabed, causing damage to the marine environment. However queen scallops from the Fal estuary in Cornwall are fished from oyster beds by traditional methods without the use of engines or winches.

The Marine Conservation Society has a detailed Good Fish Guide which you can download as an app. It’s good to know we can continue to enjoy our fish without damaging our MCZ and destroying the marine environment.

About the author

Susan Gilbert is a writer and photographer. She grew up mainly in Folkestone and has a degree in History of Art from Leeds University. While living in Huddersfield she worked for the Museums Department and is now a director, office manager and researcher for ArchiFACT Ltd.  Her interests include architecture, art, theatre and the natural world.  Susan has lived in West St Leonards for the past five years and has family connections with St Leonards going back 35 years. You can find more of Sue’s writing on her blog, just follow this link…

Photographs by Susan Gilbert except where otherwise attributed.

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2 thoughts on “Rich in habitats and marine life – our Marine Conservation Zone is a real gem

  1. What a fantastic and interesting article Susan. We walked along this coastline today and it’s amazing to think of all this wildlife on our doorstep!

  2. Hi Susan,
    I have recently moved to St Leonards on Sea and would like to know the cleanest beach. There are a lot of sewage outflow pipes, some off Warrior Square and the recent sewage spill by the beach huts was alarming. Southern Water seems to discharge raw sewage into the rivers and sea. What do you thin?
    Does the Marine Conservation Society publish any information?

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