A multi-million-pound project in The Solent is set to be the first in the UK to restore a seascape scale marine habitat

What do you picture when you look at the Solent? The international sail boats that grace its waters during Cowes Week? King Henry VIII’s navy warship the Mary Rose, which was raised from the seabed in 1982 and now sits proudly in Portsmouth Historic Dockyard? Or perhaps it’s the strong receding tides, which create a temporary island on Bramble Bank, allowing for a cricket match to be played in the middle of the strait each summer. 

Great British Life: The Solent is known for it's historical connections to the Mary Rose, it's Bramble Bank cricket matches and for being home to international sailing during Cowes WeekThe Solent is known for it's historical connections to the Mary Rose, it's Bramble Bank cricket matches and for being home to international sailing during Cowes Week (Image: HIWWT)

The Solent may well conjure all these images for which it is famous but its harbours, islands and vast sandbanks, which are bursting with marine and estuarine life, will soon have another claim to fame – as home to the UK’s first seascape scale marine habitat restoration project.  

Of international significance for birds, The Solent attracts more than 12,000 breeding pairs each year including many species of terns and gulls, while its estuaries provide wintering grounds for over 125,000 ducks, geese and wading birds, such as redshanks and oyster catchers. The channel’s mud and sand flats support seagrass and saltmarsh which provide for an abundance of species. Fish and shellfish, such as king scallops, cockles, cuttlefish and bass, all depend on these habitats for shelter and food, while endangered species, such as the European Eel and Thresher Shark, seek to find sanctuary in the Solent, which was once home to the most important native oyster fishery in Europe. It also supports around 60 harbour seals, increasing numbers of grey seals, and even the occasional bottlenose and common dolphins.  

Great British Life: The Solent's birdlife is of utmost importanceThe Solent's birdlife is of utmost importance (Image: HIWWT)

While 80 per cent of the Solent’s coastline is protected by nature conservation designations including the Solent Maritime Special Area of Conservation, Portsmouth Harbour and Chichester & Langstone Harbour SPAs, RAMSAR sites, SSSIs, four Marine Conservation Zones and the Isle of Wight UNESCO Biosphere, the 522km2 stretch of water between mainland England and the Isle of Wight is one of the most heavily used waterways in the UK, with 79,000 shipping movements per year and a quarter of all the coastal marina berths in England. Its marine habitats have become fragmented and degraded through anthropomorphic pressures including poor water quality, increased industrialisation and recreational disturbance, threatening the future of species which call it home.  

However, thanks to a partnership of 10 influential organisations working in the Solent region – the Environment Agency, Natural England, Hampshire and Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust, RSPB, Project Seagrass, Coastal Partners, Isle of Wight Estuaries Project, CHaPRoN, University of Portsmouth and Blue Marine Foundation – some of the Solent's most imperilled marine habitats are set to be restored.  

Over the next five years The Solent Seascape Project, which is being funded by $5m (circa £4.05 million) grant from the Endangered Landscapes Programme (ELP), will restore four of the area’s vulnerable marine habitats – seagrass meadows, oyster reefs, saltmarsh and seabird nesting habitat.  

Great British Life:

Leading the project is Louise MacCallum, from Blue Marine Foundation, UK ocean conservation charity set up in 2010 by some of the team behind the award-winning documentary film The End of the Line. 

‘The Solent is under increasing pressure from coastal squeeze (where habitat is lost through rising sea levels), poor water quality, unsustainable fishing and recreational disturbance,’ explains Louise, adding that more that 50 per cent of the area’s saltmarsh has been lost since the 1860s and oyster populations have declined by 95% leading to the collapse of the fishery. ‘Moreover, all 650 hectares of seagrass meadows in the Solent are in poor condition. These species provide huge ecosystem service benefits, such as carbon sequestration and biodiversity, which help to mitigate climate change.’ 

In 2020, the Environment Agency and University of Portsmouth assessed the value of water quality and climate regulation benefits the Solent’s coastal habitats provide and concluded it to be worth an estimated £1.1 billion every year. 

The Solent Seascape Project will not only restore eight hectares of saltmarsh, seven hectares of seagrass, four hectares of oysters, and 10 breeding seabird nesting sites, it will also bring together evidence of the wider benefits of seascape restoration and develop a long-term seascape recovery plan together with the local community.   

Great British Life: Solent Seagrass Champions learning how to survey and monitor existing seagrass meadows at CalshotSolent Seagrass Champions learning how to survey and monitor existing seagrass meadows at Calshot (Image: HIWWT)

‘Marine habitat restoration is in its infancy but if we’re to meet the 25-year targets set out by the Government to restore 70% of designated features in our Marine Protected Areas to a favourable condition, we need to significantly upscale,’ says Louise, adding that the Solent Seascape Project work is already underway. ‘Together with the Wildlife Trust, we’ve already planted the first seagrass meadow in Langstone Harbour and we’re planning another on the Isle of Wight. You’ll soon start seeing us out and about in Chichester Harbour doing some saltmarsh restoration and on the River Hamble, where we’re building an oyster restoration reef.’ 

'So many people are fascinated by the wonder of the underwater world, and we’ve successfully harnessed that source of inspiration to recruit an army of amazing volunteers, all of whom give up their own time to help us protect marine life,' says Jamie Marsh, director of Nature Recovery, Wilder Wight and Wilder Seas at Hampshire and Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust. ''Through this project, we want to build on that engagement and expand our Marine Champions volunteer programme even more. With our significant experience working in the Solent, protecting globally important marine wildlife and habitats like seagrass meadows, we couldn’t be more excited to make our expertise count in helping nature’s recovery in the Solent.'

The project team will also work with landowners and regulators to improve the protection and management of existing habitats and monitor the benefits of seascape scale restoration scientifically. 

Great British Life: Hampshire's coastline is about to get worldwide recognition through the restoration projectHampshire's coastline is about to get worldwide recognition through the restoration project (Image: Shaun Roster)

‘Embarking upon a marine habitat restoration project at this scale is truly ground breaking from a scientific perspective,’ adds Dr Joanne Preston from the University of Portsmouth, which is leading the scientific monitoring work for the project. ‘It will be fascinating to compare the ecosystem benefits of restoration work here in the Solent – a temperate seascape – to those seen in tropical systems where restoration techniques are slightly further ahead." 

It is hoped the lessons learned during the restoration work will be used to create a blueprint for restoring seascapes around the UK. Louise adds, ‘Being part of a team embarking on such a pioneering restoration project is so exciting. Using our combined knowledge, passion and experience on a project which will genuinely benefit marine wildlife in an area of the world we all love is such an amazing thing to be able to do.’ 

Solent Seascape Species Facts 

Great British Life: Seagrass meadows have already begun to be planted Seagrass meadows have already begun to be planted (Image: Tim Ferrero)

Seagrass, one of only three marine flowering plants in the world, forms a lush underwater meadow on the seabed, which provides a habitat for protected creatures and sequesters significant quantities of carbon.  
Did you know?  
According to The Wildlife Trust, it’s estimated that, globally, we lose an area of seagrass the size of two football pitches every hour and, in the, UK we have lost 92% of our seagrass beds in the last century. 

Great British Life: Hampshire's saltmarshes are vitally important for wading birds to breedHampshire's saltmarshes are vitally important for wading birds to breed (Image: Getty)

Saltmarsh acts as a nursery site for fish and shellfish and feeding and nesting ground for wading birds, stores carbon to mitigate against climate change and plays a valuable role in natural flood and coastal defence.  
Did you know? 
Chichester Harbour is the seventh largest expanse of saltmarsh in the UK.  

Great British Life: Native oysters ready to be deployed on Langstone Harbour's first reefNative oysters ready to be deployed on Langstone Harbour's first reef (Image: Matt Jarvis)

Native oyster reefs are formed when large numbers of living oysters and dead shells form an extensive habitat on the sea floor, providing habitat and refuge for a diversity of organisms, such as juvenile fish, crabs, sea snails and sponges. Oysters filter particles and excess nutrients, such as nitrogen which in high levels can be harmful to fish, from water. A single oyster can filter up to 200 litres of seawater per day, significantly improving water quality and clarity. 
Did you know?  
Oysters regularly change sex as part of their usual life cycle. Within Chichester Harbour the sex ratio is heavily skewed towards male suggesting that the oysters are under significant environmental stressors.  

Great British Life: Curlews are just some of the birdlife seen on The SolentCurlews are just some of the birdlife seen on The Solent (Image: Paul Adams)

The Solent Seascape Project will benefit all the seabird and wetland bird species that live here but there’ll be a focus on the Solent’s seabird colonies, such as Sandwich Tern, Common Tern, Black-headed Gull, Little Tern, Oystercatcher, Ringed Plover and Redshank. 
In the spring and summer, these birds nest on the shingle beaches, spits, islands and wet grasslands of the Solent and use the shallow waters to hunt for small fish. 
Did you know?  
Between 40,000 and 50,000 birds spend the winter in Chichester Harbour, which is designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest and Special Protection Area.