The dramatic Chale Bay coast.
NATURE NOTES Clearly being an Island gives us a head start when it comes to coastal habitats but we are also lucky with the wide variety of different ones on offer here.
The north and south coasts are different because of their aspects and because of the underlying geology. From the salt marshes, shingle spits, sandy dune-like areas and muddy flats along The Solent coastline; to the cliffs, slumped terraces, rocky ledges and sand and shingle beaches along the channel coast, there is an endless variety to choose from, and all on a manageable scale.
Many are easily accessible from public footpaths, and much of the coast forms part of specially protected landscape areas or has international designation for conservation purposes.
All the principal waterways of the island lead to The Solent, and so all the major estuarine habitats are to be found there, whilst smaller streams have created ravines in order to meet the sea along the channel coast.
Coastal habitats are subject to daily alterations due to the tides, and tend to be much more open to the vagaries of the weather, especially where they face the prevailing winds. The flora has to be particularly specialised and able to survive in conditions which would be fatal to many other plants that would not be able to cope with the salt-laden winds or the daily influx of sea-water.
The stormy conditions often experienced along the coast can bring with them unexpected treasures, and it is often a productive time to visit the beaches of the Island. Sometimes the results are sad, when fauna is washed ashore and cannot survive as a consequence but, conversely, many scavengers are assisted in their search for food at such times. Nature has its ways of restoring balance.
This year, despite the long wet spring, there have been colourful displays of wildflowers, particularly along the chalky cliffs near Freshwater, but the weather has resulted in a down-turn in the numbers of butterflies so far.
It has apparently been particularly hard on the Glanville Fritillary, which can normally be found along the south coast around Ventnor. Recent reports suggest a dramatic fall in the number of caterpillars seen.
The cycle of erosion and deposition along coastlines can also result in significant differences in the flora from one year to the next, whole areas of land being swept away either by landslips or by high tides.
Consequently, return visits to any particular spot are not wasted trips, since the habitat-changes can produce not only the loss of species, but also the reappearance of others which may have been absent for many years. However, on the other side of the coin, where man has tried to control the natural effects of nature and stabilise the ground, even the man-made coastal reinforcements and protection works provide habitats gratefully adopted by many plants and animals.
At this time of the year, a visit to the beach is top of the agenda for many families and we become yet another piece of the jigsaw, with our flotsam and jetsam providing habitats and death traps; something to bear in mind at the end of your day out – try to leave nothing but your footprints.
If you would like to spend a day in the company of experts, looking at various aspects of beach and coastal habitats, why not make a diary date for Wednesday, July25, where you can gather in the National Trust car park at Compton Bay (on the Military Road) for a 'BioBlitz’.
All day, from 10.30am to 4.30 pm, there will be activities looking for cliff-top flowers and butterflies; fossils and rock pooling. There will be displays from conservation organisations and iSpot.