Crossrail builds an island for the wild East Enders

Wallase Island © Crossrail

ON THE EASTERN edge of London an island is being built. As the constructors of the Crossrail scheme dig up thousands of tonnes of soil  they are using it to enlarge Wallasea – which is an isle for less than hour a day – into a full-time island.

Earth dug up by Crossrail will be used to raise the surface of Wallasea, creating hillocks and dips into which seawater will ebb and flow because rising above the sea will be a wildlife reserve 3km long and 2km wide, a surprise spinoff from the 117km railway linking Shenfield, near Brentwood, Essex, and Abbey Wood, South London, with Maidenhead and Heathrow in the west.

Crossrail will include an underground section between Paddington, Stratford and Woolwich.

Simon Phillips, Crossrail construction liaison manager, said the rail project had been looking for a way to reuse the excavated dirt. He added: “We could not have found a better home for it than the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds scheme at Wallasea Island.”

Superlatives are tossing around the scheme like waves washing into estuarine Essex. “Europe’s largest civil engineering project”, “conservation and engineering on a scale never before attempted” and “the largest of its type in Europe” are just some of the florid phrases eddying around it.

Whatever the hype, likely to worsen over the months to project completion, which is due in 2019, the Wallasea scheme is undeniably ambitious. The RSPB’s part of work may take longer: possibly 10 years.

In the words of the RSPB (RSPB), it aims to combat climate change and coastal flooding by recreating an “ancient wetland landscape of mudflats and saltmarsh, lagoons and pasture”.

New look: Wallasea Island © Crossrail
New-look island: Wallasea. Pic © Crossrail

With no overstatement, Graham Wynne, the charity’s chief executive, adds: “Wallasea will be the RSPB’s most ambitious and innovative habitat-recreation scheme… an astonishing agreement that a year ago we could never have imagined.”

Once the island is ready, flood defences will be breached to let salt water seep across the island to create 133 hectares of mudflats, 276 hectares of saltmarsh, 56 hectares of shallow saline lagoons and 109 hectares of coastal grazing marsh.

The calorie-rich saltmarsh, mudflats and other coastal habitats should attract spoonbills, black-winged stilts and even Kentish plovers, which have been absent from Britain for more than 50 years.

Otters, herring and flounder may be drawn to the area, sea lavender, samphire and other saltwater plants may join them.

Fifteen kilometres of new and improved access routes will make the raised island a target for bird-lovers and walkers.

Hamish Scott 280514 

* The public can see the work in progress and walk routes that already provide an invigorating amble. Details: RSPB  

* Crossrail map 

* Emboldened underscored words in most cases indicate a hyperlink, a reader service rare among websites. If a link does not work, it is probably because the site to which the URL refers has not been maintained.

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