On the Coast
Magnesian Limestone GrasslandsThe unique calcareous grassland scattering the Heritage Coast occurs on outcrops of Magnesian Limestone laid down between 295 and 250 million years ago in the Permian period. It is a species rich habitat and important biologically for its plants and invertebrates. Many species are on or near the limit of their range in Britain on these habitats and many are scarce or uncommon. This type of grassland has unique and varied wildlife with thirteen nationally scarce plants and eighty four nationally scarce invertebrate species depending on it. Nationally this type of grassland is found between Nottinghamshire and south east Tyne and Wear. A significant proportion of the national extent of Magnesian Limestone is found in Durham and southern Tyne and Wear covering the extent of the Heritage Coast. It is one of the UK's most restricted habitats and appears on the EU habitat directive. There is 225 hectares of Magnesian Limestone grassland within the Heritage Coast area.
Habitat management in terms of grazing and bracken control are issues for the conservation of grassland wildlife. Grasslands suffer disturbance from users that compromise conservation efforts. A number of rare and vulnerable species use the grasslands and they require specific conservation measures. The impacts of coastal erosion and subsequent loss of habitat and species will become increasingly important in habitat protection and management programmes. Any development impacting these habitats would be inappropriate and inconsistent with Heritage Coast objectives.
Woodland and Coastal GillsWhilst there is no commercial forestry activity within the Heritage Coast management area, the woodland that does exist at the mouths of the denes (called gills locally), has some of the most natural woodland in the North East of England. Cut during the last ice age 10,000 years ago, the small wooded valleys following the course of streams through the cliffs and onto the beaches are unique to Durham's coast and support a wide range of wildlife. Blue House Gill, part of The Durham Coast SSSI, a National Nature Reserve and a Durham Wildlife Trust nature reserve is actively managed for its rich botanical wildlife.
Other sites of particular interest are at; Cross Gill, Castle Eden Denemouth, Limekiln Gill, Hawthorn Denemouth, Warren House Gill, Whitesides Gill and Blackhill Dene. The main threats to this coastal habitat occur through vandalism and general misuse of these areas. Disturbance to habitat and wildlife compromises the conservation value of these important habitats.
On the Beach
Coastal Sand DuneCoastal sand dunes are a scarce and a localised habitat in Durham, covering 11.5 ha (0.04% of the national area of dune). Crimdon Sands represents the best dune system the Durham Heritage Coast area has to offer. It displays typical dune zonation and plant succession. The dune area exists within the Durham Coast Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and is part of the Northumbria Coast Special Protected Area (SPA), Durham National Nature Reserve and within a Candidate Special Area of Conservation (cSAC). Potential exists to increase the dune area and the quality of habitat through active management. These habitats value to wildlife is significant in terms of their plant and invertebrate life. In addition a Little Tern colony took up residence in 1995 and breeds on the nearby beach over the summer. The presence of narrow strandline reveals where embryo dunes are trying to form.
There are particular areas of conflict between nature conservation interests, recreation pressures and economic activity at Crimdon. The popular use of the area creates problems with the attractive and ecologically rich dune system. Pedestrian and unauthorised vehicular traffic accelerates the erosion of the dunes, degrading the habitat. Any plans to expand existing development such as Pony World or the Caravan Park should be monitored and their potential impact on dune development assessed. The presence of a nationally important breeding Little Tern colony nesting on the adjacent beach coincides with the principal access to the strand. The high use of the area creates problems of littering and poses a hazard to users and local wildlife. Developing a local sand dune action plan, in partnership with local users is a priority in the longer term management of this important area.
Strandline CommunitiesHigh tides deposit accumulated debris, matter and communities that become washed up on the shore. They are mainly seaweeds, invertebrates and benthic communities. Strandline communities develop on flat sandy beaches becoming more permanent in sheltered bays and estuaries. The best strandlines occur on beaches backed by sand dunes and other semi natural habitat such as at Crimdon. They provide sheltered moist conditions and a valuable habitat for marine and coastal wildlife. Not only do they support rich communities of invertebrates and plants, but are important as food for birds and mammals. They further also provide material for stabilising the foreshore for sand dune formation. The strandline communities along the management unit are sporadic and sparse. Crimdon presents a suitable habitat and has a narrow strandline. Further north into Sunderland, there exists more extensive areas. Strandline habitats generally extend from the base of cliffs to the high water mark. These communities hold maritime vegetation that is making a comeback on the coast following clean up activities. We may expect their increasing development in future years.
Rocky ShoresRocky shores are complex habitats with a range of environmental variables influencing them. They are highly bio-diverse environments and have an environmental gradient from terrestrial to entirely marine. Durham's rocky shores are poor in terms of development compared to other area in the north east, with few species present as a result of the colliery spoil dumped in the area. For example algal species has been recorded at between ten to sixty species. Elsewhere in the UK an average of ninety is recorded. Trow Rocks, south to Whitburn and at Roker are the main outcroppings of Magnesian Limestone that gives rise to rocky shores. South of Seaham the most valuable area in terms of biodiversity is at Blackhall Rocks. Rocky shores along the coast have statutory protection down to low water mark either because of their significance to nature conservation and/or their geology. Rocky shores suffer from user pressure causing habitat disturbance and species depletion with shore species commonly being taken. Pollution is a particular threat as the nature of the habitat concentrates pollutants such as oil. The ever present issue of litter threatens species using these habitats.
Sub Littoral Sand and GravelThis habitat occurs below the limit of low tide and contain substrates with a range of particle sizes from sand to gravel. These are the most common habitats below low tide in the UK with a high conservation importance supporting a variety of marine invertebrates and providing crucial nursery areas for commercial fish e.g. flat fish and bass, plaice and sand eels and an important source of food for seabirds. Where sediment is muddier and more mixed, habitats support larger numbers of species such as lug worms and bivalves. These habitats are found further offshore than sandy sediments and closer inshore at Seaham. In deeper water off the coast diversity increases, as substratum is more stable. Between the area of Seaham to Peterlee there is an area of circa littoral muddy sand situated 2 km offshore with a larger area further offshore.
The littoral zone is of particular interest due to the rapid change currently occurring along the Durham Coast. The evolution of the despoiled section of the coast following the Turning the Tide clean up has already started with a shift from sediment to rocky shore in some areas. A comprehensive baseline survey was produced in 1998 by the Environment Agency. This has recently been repeated in 2003 as part of a longer term monitoring programme.
That there have been no comprehensive assessments sub-tidally below low water, limits our understanding of the impacts away from the shoreline and the recovery of the area. It is likely that pollution and the effects of coastal construction as well as existing colliery spoil will continue to impact the habitat and species assemblages of the sublittoral.
Kelp BedsKelps make up the UK's largest native algae. Two species have been recorded on the Durham Heritage Coast; tangle (Laminaria digitata) and rough kelp (Laminaria hyporborea). They will thrive given the correct conditions of clear clean water and extensive rocks as holdfasts. There are no extensive kelp beds in the management area but some can be seen exposed at low tide e.g. at Featherbed rocks at Seaham. As kelp beds become more established kelp forests may occur along the coast. Kelp beds can provide a rich habitat for coastal and marine communities and are especially significant in providing nursery areas for invertebrates and fish and are therefore important in maintaining healthy fish stocks. Seaham is the only place on the Heritage Coast where water is sufficiently clear and rocks are unsilted to allow growth of kelps. It is likely that communities will alter and recover as spoil and silt clears management area. The main threats to kelp is the reduction in available light through silted water and suspended sediments.
Seaham Dive SurveySee a video narrated by Diver and Marine Biologist Yvonne Townsend of marine life near Seaham by members of Seaham Sub Aqua Club. Durham Heritage Coast - Durham Heritage Coast - Videos - Seaham Dive Survey.
Wrecks and ReefsThere are a number of wrecks off the coast which act as artificial reefs attracting marine life There are 300 possible wrecks identified (Durham University, 1998). There may be opportunity to use artificial reefs for management of the coast and a feasibility study will be conducted on this in the future.
Species of the Heritage CoastThe management area is home to rich and varied floral and faunal assemblages. The area is also of significance for nationally and internationally important species. This section provides some background on species identified in the Durham Biodiversity Action Plan (DBAP) and the information is taken from this document. The DBAP identifies species under threat and it should be bourne in mind that this does not mean that other species not mentioned here are well protected and are not deserving of similar levels of attention and protection. It is more a reflection of the availability of appropriate information and the level of detail required for this document. Using particular species such as those mentioned here as flagship species, may be beneficial in protecting other species using these habitats.
BirdsWithin the coastal zone there are nationally important sites for breeding little tern (Sterna albifrons) and wintering purple sandpiper (Caladris marina) that feed on the foreshore. Sanderling (Calidris alba), turnstone and knot are also present feeding and roosting during the winter. Those areas of the coast within the Durham Coast National Nature Reserve (NNR) are served by the NNR Management Plan. The coast is further a candidate site under the Birds Directive. Birds provide a good indication of the status and health of the environment and are further critical for their importance as flagship species and for the development of accessible nature tourism in the management area.
The Little Tern (Sterna Albifrons)The Little Tern is the smallest of five species of breeding tern in the UK. A summer visitor, it nests on shingle and gravel shores and feeds on crustaceans and small fish. There are around 2,400 breeding pairs in the UK and it is considered as one of Britain's rarest seabirds. There has been a long-term decline in populations since the 1970s. Comprising 13% of European populations the local population nest between the Durham and Cleveland coast near Crimdon. This population was threatened due to egg theft in 1999 and lack of returns of breeding birds in 2000. By 2001 birds returned to Crimdon Sands with twenty nesting pair and thirty fledged young. The colony is currently wardened through a scheme run by INCA. This was particularly successful last summer both in terms of the fifty five young that fledged and in the involvement of the public. Crimdon Sands is a site of national significance and in 1998 was the most successful site in the UK for breeding success (INCA pers comm.). The Little Tern further feeds inshore at Blackhall and south to Redcar in late April to Late August. Threats to this particular species are through predation by local wildlife such as gulls, kestrels and foxes, by egg collecting and from general disturbance during nesting. The nest site is further subject to flooding at high spring tides. Protection of such an important and rare population is further hampered by a lack of resources.
Purple Sandpiper (Calidris Maritama)This wading birds habitat occurs in seaweed dominated coastlines. They feed primarily on molluscs and amphipods. In the UK there are 21,000 purple sandpipers overwintering arriving in October-November, breeding only in Scotland. In Durham they are in nationally important numbers although there is incomplete information on them in the management area. There are estimates of around 160 over wintering in the area. The species are recorded at rocky outcrops in Whitburn Steele in Sunderland, to the south of Hendon and in Easington at Blackhall. The main foraging sites are; Ryhope, Seaham, Salterfen and Featherbed Rocks. There is a major roost site at Seaham docks and south Tyne Pier. Prime sites exist outside the management area at Hartlepool and Teesmouth. The populations of this species are at risk from disturbance and through reduction in their food supplies. Water quality also has a direct impact effecting availability of prey species.
Sanderling (Calidris Alba)A small wader, the sanderling is a winter passage visitor it feeds on small invertebrates on the tide line. Their wintering is wide but restricted to estuarine and open seacoasts making up 20% of the population of North West Europe. The recent increases in numbers recorded near Crimdon and Horden may be associated with the cessation of tipping or increased disturbance on the Tees. The area around the mouth of the Tees from Blackhall rocks to Saltburn is of national importance for wintering and passage sanderlings. Prime sites along the Heritage Coast are at Crimdon and Hartlepool. Less significant sites are at South Tyneside and Sunderland as these suffer badly from disturbance. Water pollution will directly impact the availability of prey for the species.
Cistus Forester Moth (Adscita Geryon)The Cistus forester moth survives over-winter as a larvae and emerges ready for flight by late June, early July. Larval food is common rock rose. The species are at the northern edge of their range in UK in the management area. Most recent data suggests their distribution is localized and limited. Number of populations and their size is unknown. They are previously found in the Heritage Coast on Magnesian limestone grassland where common rockrose grows (Helianthemum nummularium), between Crimdon Dene and Hawthorn Hive.
Northern Brown Argus Butterfly (Aricia Artaxerxes)The Northern Brown Argus is a nationally scarce species. The Durham argus has declined in northern England and no longer occurs in Northumberland. Several new colonies have been discovered in recent surveys. The butterfly is the most characteristic species of the Magnesian limestone grassland of east Durham. Most breeding sites are very small and in many cases isolated by agricultural land. The rate of decrease appears to be slowing due to conservation efforts.
For both species the threat of habitat loss (vandalism) or change of habitat e.g. through grazing, causes the main risks to their survival. Further isolation of populations through micro-habitat fragmentation compounded with the low level of knowledge of these species makes them a fragile resource.
Marine MammalsSeveral important species of marine mammals have been sighted off Durham's coast. Marine mammals, like birds may be able to provide indications of the health of the marine environment. Like birds they also provide a valuable flagship species for residents and visitors to an area. Although information and anecdotal evidence confirms that marine mammals are regular users of the Durham Coast, data is limited and future surveys to assess marine mammal distribution is required.
Harbour Porpoise (Phocoena Phocoena)Harbour porpoises are a globally threatened species and are listed on the IUCN red data list. There is no comprehensive assessment of numbers and world population status, but they are thought to have been in decline since the 1940s in UK waters. Information about distribution along the Heritage Coast comes from offshore sightings and strandings. There is assumed to be a regular occurrence of the species along the coast but it is difficult to assess abundance without more research into population status and numbers in the area. Since 1992 the Environment Agency have reported 12 strandings of harbour porpoise on the beaches of Durham and Sunderland at Seaham and Crimdon, Easington and Roker.
Atlantic White Sided Dolphin (Lagenorhyncus Acutus) and White Beaked Dolphin (Lagenorhyncus Albirostris)Both species are recorded off the north east coast. There are increased numbers in the summer months which probably coincides with the movement of fish concentrations. Both species are sighted not infrequently offshore by local fishers and boat users. Small numbers drown in drift nets set for cod, salmon and herring (WDCS website, 2003)
Minke Whale (Balaenoptera Acutorostrata)The minke whale is the smallest of the baleen whales and a protected species. They appear to move offshore in autumn and feed on fish, squid and other plankton, calving in mid winter. Minke whales are sighted in small numbers off the north east coast between June and September and have been classed as "fairly common" off the Durham coast. There have also been periodic strandings recorded at Marsden, Blackhall, Whitburn and Blackhall rocks.
Killer Whale (Orcinus Orca)Orcas are not infrequently sighted off the Northumberland Coast around the Farne islands although how much of this is a function of increased visitors and improved chances of sightings is unknown. It can be assumed that the species also use the Durham coast although no presently data exists.
Threats to marine mammals come in many forms, some obvious such as the accidental ingestion of plastic and other litter debris and entanglement and some not so obvious such as the impact of seismic testing and increased noise pollution on their communications systems. General pollution and habitat degradation pose increasing threats as do the influence of fishing through entanglement and pressure on prey stocks.