Why is this site so important for wildlife?
The geology of this part of the heritage coast is unique and its importance for wildlife is recognised as such by two national designations.
The chalk reef at Cuckmere Haven is of significant environmental interest because it is considered to be the best example of shoreline chalk habitat in the South-East Region. The platform and gullies provide a natural habitat to many forms of wildlife, including crabs and anemones. Blue Mussel beds and Native Oysters can be found densely packed on the chalk ridges. This site is also hosts the particularly rare Short-snouted Seahorse (Hippocampus hippocampus), which requires protection.
The chalk reef is within an area that is subject to very high levels of environmental protection. It is both a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and a Marine Conservation Zone (MCZ). These designations should provide protection to the habitats within them. The Marine Conservation Zone is one of nine in Sussex.
What is an SSSI and MCZ?
A Special Site of Scientific Interest is a formal conservation designation. Usually, it describes an area that's of particular interest to science due to the rare species of fauna or flora it contains - or even important geological or physiological features that may lie in its boundaries.
MCZs are a new type of Marine Protected Area (MPA), designated under the Marine and Coastal Access Act 2009.
MCZs protect areas that are important to conserve the diversity of nationally rare, threatened and representative habitats and species. Designation of these zones takes social and economic factors into account, alongside the best available scientific evidence.
What is a chalk reef, is it rare?
Chalk reef is rare because the geology of the habitat has been formed over millions of years with the action of waves and weather eroding the chalk cliffs over thousands of years to create the ridges and gullies we see today. This habitat is considered irreplaceable given the time scales involved in its creation.
What wildlife relies upon it?
Chalk reef is a fragile and unusual marine habitat which supports abundant wildlife, including threatened species such as Blue Mussel beds and Native Oysters. The site also contains rare Short-snouted Seahorses and is known to be a key nursery and spawning ground for several fish species.
What damage would have been caused to the habitat?
The planning application would have resulted in some areas of this rare habitat being destroyed. Concrete and steel sheets would have been driven down into the chalk in an attempt to slow down the natural erosion pressure of the sea. This would be a devastating, permanent and direct loss to this irreplaceable habitat, while offering only temporary protection to the cottages.
Why did you take this legal action?
Sussex Wildlife Trust’s role is to stand up for wildlife under threat. We do this against the backdrop of the climate and ecological emergencies. We have expressed concern at each stage of the planning application process. Objections were also made by Natural England, the government’s advisers for the protection of the environment in England and South Downs National Park Authority’s (SDNPA) own ecological and landscape advisors.
Despite the application clearly not complying with national and local environmental policy, the SDPNA planning committee approved the plans. The Sussex Wildlife Trust were shocked that such a damaging decision for wildlife had happened within a National Park.
With advice from the Environmental Law Foundation, we assessed the planning application against legislation and policy, and found that the applicants had not considered ways to avoid the environmental impact of the proposed works, nor had they clearly identified the damage that might be caused, which contravenes planning policy.