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The coastline of England is described in relation to its physical situation, biological interests and human pressures. The methods for administering action within the coastal zone is included. Some of the more relevant web sites are given.

General Features: Introduction England's coast and its coastal zone, Coastal geology and landscapes, Climate, Cultural heritage and Important demographic aspects

State of the Coast: Driving forces, Pressure and State and trends

Coastal Management & Planning: Introduction, Coastal & marine protected areas, Spatial Planning, Integrated Coastal Management (ICM)

General Features

For its size Great Britain has a long coastline, (Table 1, taken from the Joint Nature Conservation Committee's resource survey of Great Britain measured from 1:50000 Ordnance Survey maps). Just less than 1/3 of this lies in England.

Geographical area

Length km

% GB coast

Great Britain total





Scotland (mainland)



Scotland (islands)






England's coastal land can be divided into two broad types: a generally elevated landscape bordered by cliffs of both hard and soft rocks and low-lying areas composed of softer, sedimentary rocks. From Humberside to the south and south west as far as Pool Harbour the land is low-lying with estuaries and other sedimentary shores predominating. Sea cliffs do occur though these are relatively restricted and include limestone and chalk (Beachy Head) as well as some quite extensive and eroding soft rocks, including glacial till (north of the Humber Estuary).

Progressively, westwards and northwards the rocks become older and harder and the general topography becomes more elevated. The resistant coastline has a greater proportion of cliffs creating extremely attractive landscapes, especially in the extreme south west around the counties of Devon and Cornwall. There are exceptions and although the Lake District is generally elevated, it has a coastal fringe of 'softer' rocks including glacial boulder clay. Further south in Liverpool Bay and the Severn Estuary a coastal plain has grazing marsh, sand dunes, saltmarshes and tidal flats. Offshore the seabed is relatively shallow (Figure 1).

Figure 1 Location of some places named in the text

[Descriptions of the general nature of the coast of England are found in a number of books, see for example, Steers (1960). Steers book is particularly important, as it is a comprehensive and authoritative description of the coast from the perspective of a geomorphologist and geographer. General descriptions of the coastline and the uses to which it is put, including tourist and historic features are the AA Illustrated Guide to Britain's Coast, published by drive Publications for the Automobile Association. Another informative general text is provided by Robinson & Millward (1983). General texts about the natural history of the coastline (GB) are covered by Freethy (1983), Soothill & Thomas (1987) and Soper 1989.]

The marine waters are shallow around most of the coast and all lie within the European Continental Shelf. Depths rarely exceed 60 metres and along the coast of the Irish Sea and southern North Sea shallow waters extend for several km offshore. Fishing is a major activity with both inshore and deep-water fisheries making a significant contribution to the economy.

[The most comprehensive descriptions of the range of coastal habitats, ecosystems, species of both conservation and economic important and human activities taking place on the coast and coastal waters around England can be found in the publication produced by the Joint Nature Conservation Committee. The relevant volumes are listed below (Barnes et al. 1997 onwards). See also the summary volume for the North Sea (Doody et al. 1991) and for the Celtic Seas (Weighell et al. 2000)]. Details can be found on the Joint Nature Conservation Committee's web site @

Coastal geology and landscapes: coastal types and main ecosystems 
The coastal geology is well documented, see a summary map (Figure 1, Environment Agency Web site Descriptions onshore of both the base geology and sedimentary deposits (drift geology) are contained in detailed maps produced by the British Geological Survey ( The classic descriptions of Steers (1960) include geology, geomorphology, landform and vegetation.

Figure 2 geological structure of England and Wales (Map courtesy of the British Geological Survey ŠNERC 1995. All rights reserved)

Climate in the coastal zone 
England has a mild climate for its latitude, characterised by a small range of annual and daily temperatures and by variable weather patterns, both in time and space. It experiences the combined effect of mild mid-Atlantic westerly winds, and the North Atlantic Gulf Stream, a body of warm water travelling from the tropics. The temperature of this water varies only slowly from month to month because of the oceans capacity to store vast amounts of heat which helps to ameliorate the temperature over the land mass. The mean annual average temperatures in recent years over Great Britain have varied from about 11.5 degrees Centigrade in the extreme south west to about 9.0 degrees Centigrade in the north. This amelioration is especially significant at the coast and is reflected in the extreme maritime nature of many coastal types, particularly those associated with the west facing maritime cliffs.

Cultural heritage in the coastal zone 
Away from the main urban centres there are numerous small coastal villages. Many of these include agriculture and fishing as the main economic activities. These contribute to the cultural and landscape of the areas. For example, traditional local fisheries haul their small boats onto beaches which on the south coast include relatively steep shingle shores. There is a rich historical heritage. On the south coast this is particularly associated with the protection of England from invasion. Martello towers (from the Nepoleonic Wars) and many of the more recent features of naval and maritime interest can be found there. English Heritage was set up in 1984 under the National Heritage Act 1983, to protect England's historic, architectural and archaeological heritage and to encourage people to understand and enjoy it. English Heritage's web page provides links to the main areas of coastal interest including archaeological remains beneath the sea.

Important demographic aspects (population density, growth, migration) 
Human populations are concentrated around London and the major ports of Southampton and Liverpool, in north-east England (Newcastle, Sunderland and Middlesborough), on the south coast and around Blackpool where some of the main tourist developments have taken place (Figure 3). 3.6 million people of the 51.8 million in England and Wales live within 10km of the Thames Estuary (7% of the total) and it is estimated by the Environment Agency (for England and Wales) that 11.5 million people out of the total population in Great Britain live within 1km of an estuary. Given the importance of the ports to trade it is clear that the coastal zone, especially that around the estuaries of England is of considerable economic significance. This has been true for many centuries and the coast and coastal waters have a rich archaeological and historical heritage.

Figure 3: Population within 10km of the coast (Environment Agency 1999)

The south coast continues to be a focus for tourism and new developments and the refurbishment of old structures such as seaside piers are major occur in many of the older resorts.

State of the Coast

The European Environment Agency (EEA) uses a modification of the United Nations' Pressure-State-Response model in their work at the European scale. The EEA's DPSIR causality model shows Driving forces (e.g. industry and transport) producing Pressures on the environment (e.g. polluting emissions), which then degrade the State of the environment and have Impacts on human health and eco-systems. Society Responds with various policy measures, such as regulations, information and taxes, or management action which can be directed at any other part of the system.

Driving forces 
Land use and land use changes 
Development of urban infrastructure, ports and harbours have all taken their toll on the coastal areas of England. When added to the substantial areas of tidal land which have been converted to agriculture through enclosure the losses have been considerable. No where has this been more intense than around the major estuaries. Figures derived from the "Estuaries Review" (Davidson et al. 1997) give an indication of how large these have been (Table 3, derived from several sources). The cumulative nature of these changes can be illustrated from a variety of sites. Loss to agriculture (Figure 4) or port development, which are cumulative and dependent on economic conditions. See also section 4 of the Environment Agency report (Environment Agency 1999)

Economic developments, sectors and trends * 
A significant percentage of the coastline is already developed in industrial, commercial, residential and recreational terms. Around 31% of the coastal frontage of England and Wales is occupied by buildings, roads and recreation facilities such as caravan parks, camping sites, car parks and golf courses. Economic pressure for further expansion of these facilities is likely to increase in the future. About 40% of UK manufacturing industry is also situated on or near the coast because of access to ports increasing the ease of importing and exporting. Much of industry and major cities are located around large estuaries.

Natural forces 
Climate change and sea level rise are important, especially around the south and east of England. Here low-lying land is sinking because of isostatic factors resulting from the end of the last glaciation which affected much of the area. The threat from flooding and erosion are related and equally important factors. Relative sea level rise is estimated to be as high as 5.4mm per annum in the extreme south east (Carter 1988).

Land for housing, barrages, recreational demand and transport (especially for port facilities) continues to be required. With such a large proportion of coastal land already developed, there is a demand for coastal protection from erosion, and sea and tidal defences against flooding. Many coastal defences are now essential to the social and economic well being of the landward areas, and often of seaward resources such as boating and recreational facilities. The Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA, is responsible for policy on flood and coastal defence and oversee the development and implementation of Shoreline Management Plans (see below).

Figure 5 Sea defences in England and Wales

Water quality and pollution 
Sewage and industrial discharges both regulated and accidental continue to have an impact on coastal waters. These effects have greatly decreased in recent years as more investment has been made on treatment. Disposal at sea is no longer an issue as this stopped in 1998. Bathing water compliance with the mandatory standards of the EC Directive has been steadily increasing in recent years as a result of a substantial and continuing investment by the water service companies (see

Water and aggregate extraction 
Water abstraction from coastal aquifers (such as the sand dunes in the Netherlands) is not a major activity though treated river water is used as drinking water and coolant for power stations. At a few sites, shingle structures and sand dunes abstraction does occur (Dungeness in south east England) but can lead to problems with saline water intrusion. 

Aggregate extraction on the other hand, both onshore and offshore, is a major activity. Much of the offshore aggregate extraction is controlled by the Crown Estate which manages it for the Queen [see]. The Marine holdings include about half of the foreshore around the UK (between mean low and mean high water), 55% of the beds of tidal rivers and estuaries and almost all of the seabed out to the 12 mile territorial limit. It is the second largest business group of the Crown Estate. Other activities using the foreshore and seabed include pipelines, cables, outfalls, ports, jetties and boating facilities as well as a large number of conservation leases. 

State and trends 
The Coastal Directories volumes (Barnes et al. 1995-98) all include sections of human activities as they affect elements of coastal and marine interest from rare species to commercially exploited resources. The comments made below are just a small selection of some of the key issues.

Coastal & marine biodiversity 
Of the 624 scarce or rare plants in Great Britain 121 occur in coastal habitats. Many of these are becoming rarer as habitat destruction and changes in land management make the sites less optimal for survival. Changes in grazing management is a particularly important issue. Habitat fragmentation has also been important and species such as the natterjack toad and sand lizard are now much rarer than formerly. By contrast, many of the major seabird colonies have shown an increase in nesting birds as protective measures have been effective. Natural England* (, supported by the Joint nature Conservation Committee provide a comprehensive “Biodiversity Information Service”. The JNCC co-ordinates the UK biodiversity programme see for information and contact points for habitat and species action plans. There are approximately 20 coastal species (plants and animals) and four coastal habitats for which Biodiversity Action Plans have been prepared.

* The former English Nature is now part of a new countryside Government Agency called “Natural England” following its amalgamation with the Countryside Agency and the Rural Development Service.

Coastal ecosystems and habitats 
The historical losses of habitat, notably in estuaries continue but on a smaller scale. Net loss of rural land within 10km of the coast ranged over the period from 1990-1993 from 0.34% around the estuaries of the rivers Tyne and Wear in the north east to no net loss in Cheshire and Gloucestershire in the west (Davidson et al. 1991). Protection of sites through statutory legislation (especially as Sites of Special Scientific Interest) has resulted in a small number of development proposals being refused. In the Solent on the south coast proposals for an extension to the port of Southampton were resisted on the grounds of their impact on nature conservation interests. A public inquiry took place from 2001 to 2002. In 2004 the inspector recommended the proposal should not take place, a view supported by Government. For information about the conservation case see the Residents Against Dibden Bay Port Action Group web site ( or for further links look at the Planning Inspecorate’s links page ( This is, however, the exception rather than the rule and other major conflicts took a different course. 

Cardiff Bay (part of the Severn Estuary Special Area of Conservation) was enclosed by a tidal exclusion barrage in 2 despite vigorous opposition from nature conservaton organisations in both Houses of Parliament. In order to offset the damage alternative, but different, habitat was created nearby. For a critique of the scheme see Best (2004). Revised proposals for a tidal energy barrage across the Severn Estuary will have major implications for the wildlife of this important Special Area of Conservation. For a review of the dilemmas associated with this proposal see the Worldwide Fund for Nature web site @
Loss of saltmarsh to erosion is a major issue on the south east coast. This is due in part at least to the higher sea levels resulting from the effect of relative sea level rise, which is particularly high in this area. Habitat loss as a result of land enclosure combined with sea level rise results in a ‘coastal squeeze’. This can turn small scale cumulative losses into larger effects which cause major damage. Together with changes in management, such as reduction or cessation of grazing, fundamentally alter the nature of the habitat and major loss of wildlife interest can occur. Note for more detailed information on coastal conservation and management see Doody (2001) and for saltmarsh management and restoration, Doody (in press).

Scrub encroachment onto species-rich coastal grassland (including sand dunes and sea cliffs) is an important factor in loss of species of both plants and animals. The extinction of the large blue butterfly and the loss of many breeding chough colonies are both attributed, in part at least to reduction in grazing of their preferred habitats in coastal locations, especially in the south west.

Important coastal & marine species 
Exploitation of fish resources continues to be a major concern throughout England. CEFAS is a scientific research and monitoring centre for fisheries management and environmental protection ( providing contract research, consultancy, advice and training in fisheries science and management as well as marine environmental protection, aquaculture and fish and shellfish disease and hygiene. Work includes the collection and analyses of appropriate data on fish, fisheries and the marine environment in order to providing management advice to the Ministers of the member states of the European Union so that the Common Fisheries Policy can be implemented and improved.

Over-fishing has reduced the populations of many coastal species. The knock-on impact on by-catch (notably of cetaceans) is also becoming more apparent. Recent deaths of a large number of dolphins are a particular concern. Information on cetaceans is available from a number of sources e.g. the Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF)
Spartina anglica continues to be an important element in the changing nature of saltmarshes. In the south it continues to show ‘die-back’ from area where rapid invasion took place in the early part of last century. It continues to expand in the west especially in and around the major estuaries of Liverpool Bay. 

Regular monitoring of birds wintering in a selected number of estuaries are included in the wetland survey co-ordinated by the British Trust for Ornithology ( These continue to provide important information on the status of many bird species and help form the basis for conservation action including designation of sites of international and national importance.

References referred to in the text:

Barne, J.H., Robson, C.F., Kaznowska, S.S. & Doody, J.P., 1995. Coasts and Seas of the United Kingdom. Region 5, North-east England: Berwick-upon-Tweed to Filey Bay. Peterborough, Joint Nature Conservation Committee.

Barne, J.H., Robson, C.F., Kaznowska, S.S. & Doody, J.P., 1995. Coasts and Seas of the United Kingdom. Region 6, Eastern England: Flamborough Head to Great Yarmouth. Peterborough, Joint Nature Conservation Committee.

Barne, J.H., Robson, C.F., Kaznowska, S.S. & Doody, J.P., 1996. Coasts and Seas of the United Kingdom. Region 9, Southern England: Hayling Island to Lyme Regis. Peterborough, Joint Nature Conservation Committee.

Barne, J.H., Robson, C.F., Kaznowska, S.S. & Doody, J.P., 1996. Coasts and Seas of the United Kingdom. Region 10, South-west England: Seaton to Roseland Penisula. Peterborough, Joint Nature Conservation Committee.

Barne, J.H., Robson, C.F., Kaznowska, S.S. & Doody, J.P., 1996. Coasts and Seas of the United Kingdom. Region 11, The Western Approaches: Falmouth Bay to Kenfig. Peterborough, Joint Nature Conservation Committee.

Barne, J.H., Robson, C.F., Kaznowska, S.S. & Doody, J.P., 1996. Coasts and Seas of the United Kingdom. Region 13, Northern Irish sea: Colwyn Bay to Stranraer, including the Isle of Man. Peterborough, Joint Nature Conservation Committee.

Barne, J.H., Robson, C.F., Kaznowska, S.S. & Doody, J.P., 1998. Coasts and Seas of the United Kingdom. Region 7, South-east England: Lowestoft to Dungeness. Peterborough, Joint Nature Conservation Committee.

Barne, J.H., Robson, C.F., Kaznowska, S.S. & Doody, J.P., 1998. Coasts and Seas of the United Kingdom. Region 8, Sussex: Rye Bay to Chichester Harbour. Peterborough, Joint Nature Conservation Committee.

Best, S., 2004. A Whim Set in Concrete: The Campaign to Stop the Cardiff Bay Barrage. Seren Books, Bridgend.

Carter, R.W.G., 1988. Coastal environments. An introduction to the physical, ecological and cultural systems of coastlines. Academic Press, London.

Davidson, N.C., Laffoley, D d'A., Doody, J.P., Way, L.S., Gordon, J., Key, R., Drake, C.M., Pienkowski, M.W., Mitchell, R. & Duff, K.L., 1991. Nature Conservation and Estuaries in Great Britain. Nature Conservancy Council, Peterborough.

Department of the Environment, 1993. Coastal Planning and Management: a Review. Rendel Geotechnics, HMSO, London.

Department of the Environment, 1995. Policy Guidelines for the Coast.

Department of the Environment, London.

Department of the Environment, 1996. Coastal Zone Management, Towards Best Practice. Department of the Environment, London

Doody, J.P., 2001. Coastal Conservation and Management: an Ecological Perspective. Kluwer Academic Publishers, Boston.

Doody, J.P., in press. Coastal Conservation, Management and Restoration: Volume 1, Saltmarsh. Springer Academic Publishers, the Netherlands.

Environment Agency (1999) The State of the Environment of England and Wales: Coasts. The Stationary Office, London

Freethy, R., 1983. The Naturalist's Guide to the British Coastline. David & Charles, Newton Abbot.

House of Commons, 1992. Coastal Zone Protection and Planning. HMSO, London. Environment Committee Second Report.

Joint Nature Conservation Committee, 1999. Coasts and Seas of the United Kingdom. Coastal Directories Electronic Platform (Phase 1). Joint Nature Conservation Committee, Peterborough

Local Government Association, 1999. On the Edge: the Real Issues on the Coast. A Draft Strategy from the LGA's Special Interest Group on Coastal Issues. LGA Publications, Local Government Association, London.

Robinson, A. & Millward, R., 1983. The Shell Book of the British Coast. David & Charles, Newton Abbot.

Soothill, E. & Thomas, M.J., 1987. The Natural History of Britain's Coasts. Blanford Press, London.

Soper, T., 1989. A Natural History Guide to the Coast. Peerage Books, in association with the National Trust.

Steers, J.A., 1960. The Coast of England & Wales in Pictures. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Steers, J.A., 1969a. The Coastline of England and Wales. 2nd ed. Cambridge. At the University Press.

Steers, J.A., 1969b. The Sea Coast. 4th ed. London, Collins. (New Naturalist Series No. 25.)

Weighell, A.J., Donnelly, A.P. & Calder, K., 2000. Directory of the Celtic Coasts and Seas. Joint Nature Conservation Committee, Peterborough

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