NEWS  ⁄  CLIMATE & ENVIRONMENT

Exe Estuary wildlife refuges succeed in increasing bird numbers

Three year monitoring study confirms introduction of protected spaces has resulted in greater numbers of wildfowl using internationally important Dawlish Warren and Exmouth sites.

The introduction of public access restrictions in two areas of the Exe Estuary has led to increased numbers of birds using the internationally important feeding and roosting sites at Dawlish Warren and Exmouth nature reserves.

A three year monitoring study has observed increases in waders and wildfowl including significant numbers of oystercatchers, shelducks, goldeneyes, black- and bar-tailed godwits and curlews, which are under increasing threat.

Black-tailed godwits in Exe Estuary

Black-tailed godwits in Exe Estuary. Photo: Joe Harrison.

Ecologists began to monitor the wildlife refuges when they were created in February 2018. Boundary markers were installed asking members of the public to voluntarily refrain from entering the refuges during active periods, which differ at the two sites.

Dawlish Warren is active all year round, while the Exmouth reserve is only active from mid-September through to the end of December, a period which corresponds with migratory birds using the site for overwintering.

Wardens were also available as sources of information and guidance at the refuges, which together comprise 7% of the Exe Estuary and were chosen for their value to bird communities.

Oystercatchers and godwits in Exe Estuary

Oystercatchers and godwits in Exe Estuary. Photo: Joe Harrison.

The study found that the wildlife refuges significantly reduced disturbance to protected bird species, while confirming that they are located in the right places and cover the most critical times of year.

It also found that the decrease in human activity resulted both from “reasonable levels of compliance” with the restrictions by members of the public and lower footfall during coronavirus pandemic lockdown periods, although there were increases in human activity during holiday periods too.

Maximum wildfowl numbers at the Exmouth refuge increased each year during the course of the study and total wildfowl numbers increased at the Dawlish Warren refuge, implying that both sites are becoming more important for birds over time.

Black-tailed godwit in Exe Estuary

Black-tailed godwit in Exe Estuary. Photo: Joe Harrison.

The research was commissioned by the South East Devon Habitat Regulations Partnership following the Exe Disturbance Study, published in 2011, which stressed the need to mitigate the impact of local development on the estuary’s wildlife.

The number of residential properties within 10km of the River Exe has increased by 11.9% in the last decade, resulting in greater numbers of people using the estuary for recreational purposes, with a corresponding adverse effect on local wildlife.

Annual variations in bird numbers may also be affected by factors including adult survival and breeding success as well as food availability, water quality and climatic impacts.

Wigeons in Exe Estuary

Wigeons in Exe Estuary. Photo: Joe Harrison.

The whole of the Exe Estuary is an internationally important wildlife site. It contains two Sites of Special Scientific Interest and is a Special Protection Area and a Ramsar site.

It contains a diverse range of habitats including mudflats, saltmarshes and sandflats which support eelgrass and extensive mussel beds and provide rich foraging and sheltered roosting sites for waders and wildfowl including many migratory species.

During winter, tens of thousands of birds depend on the Exe Estuary to rest and feed on their long migratory journeys, from places as far away as Siberia.


 is a freelance educator specialising in religious studies and history and has more than ten years' experience working in a range of educational institutions.

Exeter in brief
Exeter in brief

Royal College of Nursing staff at the ROYAL DEVON NHS TRUST have resumed strike action alongside South Western Ambulance Service workers as healthcare professionals across the country stage the biggest strike in NHS history.

Detailed plans for the Honiton Road MOOR EXCHANGE RETAIL PARK have been submitted for approval. Outline planning permission for the development was granted two years ago.

The police inspectorate says DEVON AND CORNWALL POLICE must make urgent improvements after it was found to be inadequate in three of nine areas including responding to emergency and non-emergency calls and managing registered sexual and violent offenders.
Its assessment found two other areas required improvement while two more were graded “good”. A new chief constable was appointed in December after the force was placed under enhanced inspectorate monitoring last year.

DEVON COUNTY COUNCIL is consulting on its draft Exeter Local Cycling and Walking Infrastructure Plan, which is already nearly six years late, until the end of March.

UNIVERSITY OF EXETER staff have resumed strike action over pay, pensions and working conditions alongside Exeter school teaching staff with dozens more strike days planned during February and March.

EXETER CITY FUTURES published the agenda for its last board meeting on 30 January, two months after the meeting was held. It says it is “committed to being completely transparent and open about the things that are discussed at board meetings”. No minutes were included.

DEVON COUNTY COUNCIL is not making sufficient progress with its children’s services since they were judged inadequate in January 2020 according to the latest Ofsted monitoring report which found that key areas still require significant change and serious issues remain.

The UNIVERSITY OF EXETER has submitted detailed plans for its 1,700 bed West Park redevelopment of 50,000m2 of student accommodation.

Royal College of Nursing staff at the ROYAL DEVON NHS TRUST have resumed strike action alongside South Western Ambulance Service workers as healthcare professionals across the country stage the biggest strike in NHS history.

Detailed plans for the Honiton Road MOOR EXCHANGE RETAIL PARK have been submitted for approval. Outline planning permission for the development was granted two years ago.

The police inspectorate says DEVON AND CORNWALL POLICE must make urgent improvements after it was found to be inadequate in three of nine areas including responding to emergency and non-emergency calls and managing registered sexual and violent offenders.
Its assessment found two other areas required improvement while two more were graded “good”. A new chief constable was appointed in December after the force was placed under enhanced inspectorate monitoring last year.

DEVON COUNTY COUNCIL is consulting on its draft Exeter Local Cycling and Walking Infrastructure Plan, which is already nearly six years late, until the end of March.

UNIVERSITY OF EXETER staff have resumed strike action over pay, pensions and working conditions alongside Exeter school teaching staff with dozens more strike days planned during February and March.

EXETER CITY FUTURES published the agenda for its last board meeting on 30 January, two months after the meeting was held. It says it is “committed to being completely transparent and open about the things that are discussed at board meetings”. No minutes were included.

DEVON COUNTY COUNCIL is not making sufficient progress with its children’s services since they were judged inadequate in January 2020 according to the latest Ofsted monitoring report which found that key areas still require significant change and serious issues remain.

The UNIVERSITY OF EXETER has submitted detailed plans for its 1,700 bed West Park redevelopment of 50,000m2 of student accommodation.

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