An ecosystem can be described as the relationships between the biotic or living members of a community, e.g. plant life, birds and the abiotic or non-living elements, including water and soil which form the natural environment. The essay will examine the ecosystems of Sand Bay and surrounding shoreline, including Sand Point and Middle Hope. The essay will comment on evidence of land use, misuse and attempts to conserve the habitat, based on evidence gathered during a field visit to the site during December 2001. For ease of identification, I have referenced some locations described on the enclosed map.
Sand Bay is located in the county of North Somerset in the south west of England. The area of Sand Bay and Middle Hope occupies an approximately 2 mile long stretch of coastline on the south side of the Seven Estuary, approximately 4 miles north east of the seaside resort of Weston Super Mare and 18 miles west of Bristol.
There are a variety of ecosystems along the Sand Bay coastline, the major ones are the marine ecosystem, the salt marshes (1) on the north side of the bay, the sand beach, Swallow Cliff and the surrounding grassland. There are many smaller ecosystems within these major ones, including the rock pools and caves at the foot of Swallow Cliff 2.
The climate of the region is cool temperate maritime, with average temperatures ranging from around 5oC in the winter months to 17oC in the summer. The prevailing wind is from the west. Due to the strong coastal winds and poor, stony soil, only a limited number of plant species grow on Swallow Cliff (2), these include hawthorn bushes, bramble and grass. The impact of the wind can be seen on the vegetation, which has a “scrub-like” appearance, growing low to the ground, pushed over sideways by the wind. On the fertile, sheltered alluvial plains (3) below the cliff, the vegetation is more diverse and includes clover and nettles.
The tidal range at 13.2 metres is amongst the largest in the world. Evidence of erosion caused by hydraulic action can be seen on Swallow Cliff (2), where joints (vertical cracks) have appeared in the carboniferous limestone rock, caves, formed at the foot of the cliff are also due to sea erosion. A wave cut platform (4) surrounds the north side of Swallow Cliff, indicating the sea level was at one time lower than current levels. A pebble beach (5) has formed adjacent to the wave cut platform, at Middle Hope. Attrition (round of pebbles) is due to sea erosion.
There are three basic rock types along the coastline, carboniferous limestone forming Swallow Cliff (2) and enclosing Sand Bay on the south side; alluvium deposits, which form the coastline of Sand Bay; and volcanic pillow lava’s and tuffs seen adjacent to the pebble beach (5) at Middle Hope. Evidence of differential erosion can be seen by the formations of headlands along the coastline, the softer alluvium deposits eroding more rapidly than the more durable carboniferous limestone rock.
The littoral found on the pebble beach (5) included seaweed, a crabs claw, and limpet shell. Winkles and whelks had colonized the rock pools at the foot of Swallow Cliff (2). Part of a fishing line was found on the beach and two Oyster Catchers were seen off the shore at Middle Hope, suggesting the presence of fish in the marine ecosystem.
The mudflat (6) on the north side of Sand Bay is dominated by halophytes (salt loving vegetation). The root structure of spartina grass, growing on the seaward side of the mud flat has helped stabilize the mud, making it less prone to dispersal by the sea. Further towards the coast, where the mud is less usually covered by the sea, other halophytic vegetation, such as samphire also grow.
Land Use and Abuse
The peninsula of Middle Hope rises 48 metres above sea level, where a triangulation point is situated, offering good visibility of the surrounding coastline. It is protected on the seaward side by a series of limestone cliffs, so is well suited to defence purposes. Remains of an Iron Age fort are visible on the western edge of the plateau, bordering Swallow Cliff. A prison was erected on the site to house prisoners during the Napolenoic War (1799 – 1815), remains of the stone walls can be seen around the fort area. The site was again used during the Second World War (1939 – 1945), concrete and brick rubble dating from this time still remains on the site.
The alluvial plains surrounding Sand Bay provide a mineral-rich soil, well suited to cultivation. A Saxon field site (7) is situated to the east of Middle Hope, indicating that the land has been cultivated for over 1000 years. Remains of an Augistinian Priory and the buildings of Woodspring Priory (8) nearby, both of which are likely to have relied on farming for subsistence and additional income, provide further evidence of agricultural land use. Presently, there are three farm houses in the area, one adjacent to Woodspring Priory and two in Sand Bay itself . These buildings indicate the continuing importance of farming in the area. Sheep droppings were found on the Middle Hope peninsula, the plateau is surrounded by a wire fence. A farm gate leads from the eastern edge of plateau to the lower ground by the beach, tractor tracks were seen here. All of the above indicate that the land is actively used for grazing.
Middle Hope and Swallow Cliff peninsula are owned by the National Trust. The site is open to the public. There is a visitors car park at Sand Point, at the site entrance. The car park capacity is approximately 30 cars, there is an overspill car park in a field behind, indicating that Middle Hope is a popular destination in the summer months. The village of Sand Bay (approximately 15 minutes walk away) has a railway station and a regular bus service, opening up the site to more visitors.
There is a caravan park in Sand Bay and two more on the feeder road to the village, indicating that the area has an established tourist population. Caravan parks are considered by many people as an eyesore, spoiling the character of the landscape. The caravan site may and surrounding area may suffer from erosion, caused by large numbers of people walking on the site or damage from the vehicles themselves. The site may also be a major source of noise pollution, disturbing wildlife. Tourists also generate large quantities of refuse, including toxic waste such as that from chemical toilets or dog faeces.
The footpath at the site entrance was muddy and concave in shape, indicating footpath erosion, due to the volume of visitors using the path. Further up the Middle Hope peninsula there were bare patches of ground where the vegetation had been eroded away.
The Middle Hope and the village of Sand Bay has few amenities. There are some public toilets located at the car park at Sand Point and a Post Office and Public House in Sand Bay. However, tourists would have to travel further afield for other amenities, e.g. grocery shops or for entertainment. Lack of local amenities could put pressure on local services, such as buses, narrow roads may become congested during peak tourist season.
The National Trust have a visitor information notice board at the site entrance. A marked footpath leads up to the Middle Hope peninsula. Litter was found in the hedgerow adjacent to the footpath and, on the peninsula and on the pebble beach. One of the items of litter (a Foster’s lager can) on the beach was rusting, another, a crisp packet was faded, indicating that the site is not cleared of litter on a regular basis. There are no litter bins at the site.
Fishing lines and net fragments were found on the pebble beach, indicating that commercial and/or recreational fishing takes place in the surrounding area.
The area is designated as a Site of Special Scientific interest for geology by English Nature. The site is regularly monitored by English Nature for signs of erosion, or other damage and more stringent planning restrictions are enforced in the local area, so that the character of the landscape is not spoilt.
Middle Hope is owned by the National Trust, who maintain the site and its footpaths. According to the National Trust visitor information board, work includes regularly cutting back bramble and hawthorn to prevent it smothering the grassland and leasing the land to a local farmer to ensure that it is regularly grazed.
Middle Hope area is part of the Countryside Stewardship Scheme. The Ministry of Agriculture have given funding so that the land may be farmed using traditional methods, without use of fertilizers or pesticides. Many of the harmful effects of pesticides, such as reduction in biodiversity, due to cumulative poisons entering the food chain are reduced; risks associated with used of fertilizers, such as high algae and seaweed growth, caused by pesticides entering the water system are also substantially reduced. The according to the National Trust, the Middle Hope area has been grazed since the Middle Ages. Continued grazing on the site is important in order to maintain wildlife populations who have become reliant on the short grass and scrub land. Without the grazing, the area may become swamped with brambles and other vegetation, changing the nature of the habitat.
Attempts have been made to reduce footpath erosion at Middle Hope. Concrete steps have been built, leading down to the beach and gravel has been placed on some of the footpath, leading up to the triangulation point (9). Notice been erected, prohibiting the use of bicycles or other vehicles on the peninsula. Notices also state that dogs should be kept on a lead. This reduces the risk of worrying sheep, disturbing wildlife or other visitors.
The balance between allowing free access to land for both recreational and commercial use and at the same time conserving the habitat is a difficult one to strike. Access to Sand Bay and Middle Hope by visitors is relatively unrestricted. By allowing access to visitors and providing information on the area and the habitats within, the National Trust aims to increase public awareness of the value of these habitats and the importance of their conservation.
Various efforts have been made to conserve the land; from a recreation point of view, these include fencing, controlled footpaths and provision of a parking area for visitors, to limit the erosion to the area. The area is farmed to maintain the character of the habitat, pesticides and fertilizers are not used limiting any environmental damage. It is inevitable that some damage will be caused by inconsiderate visitors or by the sheer volume of people accessing the site. Modern farming techniques, such as the use of tractors also take their toll on the land.
A few things could be done to limit the damage, such as regular litter picking or provision of litter bins and poop scoops for dog owners. The National Trust could also consider introducing a small entrance fee to the area during the peak months so that number of visitors to the site is reduced. Charging entrance fees however is a complex issue, as some people may be deterred from visiting, whilst others may access other sites of value in en mass, merely transferring the problem of recreational damage to another site.
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