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  • Writer's pictureRowena Mynott

The Salcombe & Kingsbridge Ria

The Kingsbridge Estuary, creates a stunning natural tapestry of meandering waterways, tidal creeks, and lush greenery. This estuarine haven is a living, breathing ecosystem that supports a rich array of wildlife and provides a tranquil backdrop for locals and visitors.

Now, although we casually throw around the term "estuary" for the Kingsbridge Estuary, it's technically more of a Ria. A Ria is a valley shaped by a river where the valley is only partially submerged—basically, a drowned river valley staying connected to the sea. The Kingsbridge Ria takes it to the extreme, forming an estuary that seems way too big for its river since no major river flows into it, just a collection of small streams.

Stretching from Kingsbridge up north to Salcombe at its mouth, the Ria is sandwiched between Bolt Head and Sharpitor on the west and Portlemouth Down on the east. At 8.6km in length, the Ria has numerous side channels and creeks. It covers an area of 674 hectares of which 446 hectares are inter-tidal. At high water the length of coast within the Ria is 48.6km. Although there are no major water courses entering the estuary, its total catchment area is 6,800 hectares.

Back in February 1987, the estuary was officially stamped as a Site of Special Scientific Interest. It's also a Local Nature Reserve and falls within the South Devon National Landscape (formerly South Devon Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty).

With a history dating back centuries, the Kingsbridge Estuary has played a vital role in the region's maritime heritage. Once a bustling hub for trade and transportation, the estuary bears witness to a rich collection of maritime stories, from the bustling activity of shipyards to the graceful sails of historic vessels. Today, it remains a living testament to the symbiotic relationship between nature and mankind.

This is a relationship, however, that needs some work as we continue to have a negative impact on the Ria’s delicate ecosystem.  Due to the nature of a Ria, the Kingsbridge Estuary has very little water flow through it and as such any pollutants entering the system can have a significant effect. Along the water course there are 22 sewerage/wastewater treatment works, which, during 2022, had 3 adverse release incidents every 2 days at 9 hours each day on average. Alongside foul smells, this caused incidents of post-swimming illness.

For water enthusiasts, the Kingsbridge Estuary offers an idyllic playground. Kayakers, sailors, and paddle-boarders are drawn to its calm waters, exploring the myriad of channels and hidden coves that make up this aquatic wonderland. The estuary's tidal nature adds an element of intrigue, as water levels rise and fall with the ebb and flow of the tides, creating a dynamic and ever-changing landscape. As water users we need to be aware of the ecosystem beneath our water vehicles. Many people are unaware that there are significant seagrass beds in the Estuary that contain two species of seahorses. The use of anchors and paddles can significantly impact and damage the seagrass which impacts on the habitats of the fauna that live there.

The Kingsbridge Estuary is not only a visual feast but also a haven for diverse flora and fauna. From wading birds and waterfowl to the occasional seal basking in the sun, the estuary supports a delicate balance of ecosystems. The surrounding marshes and mudflats provide vital habitats for a variety of plant and animal species, making it a must-visit destination for nature lovers.

Dotting the estuary's shoreline are charming towns and villages, each with its own unique

character. Kingsbridge, Salcombe, and Dartmouth are among the quaint settlements that offer a warm welcome to visitors. Local shops, seafood restaurants, and cozy pubs line the waterfront, inviting exploration and creating a sense of community along the estuary.

All of this shows just how lucky we are to live in such a beautiful area but more importantly how we should all have a role in protecting the Ria. There are many ways which we can do this from ensuring that what we put down our sink and toilet is wildlife friendly, our litter in the town all needs to go in the bin and reduce pesticide use in the garden and around town. In 2024 there will be opportunities for volunteers to come along and join KCA in preserving the Ria and join together as a community to work together and keep our estuary ecosystem healthy.

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