Lancashire - Hesketh Out Marsh, Hesketh Bank

  • Ariel view of Hesketh Out Marsh.

  • Hesketh Out Marsh nature reserve.


The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) and the Environment Agency are exploring a more natural way of dealing with coastal flooding, through what is called "managed realignment"– using land as a place to store floodwater, in an attempt to move away from the solid flood-defence structures that have been used previously to protect our coast and estuaries.

Hesketh Out Marsh lies on the southern shore of the River Ribble estuary and is the biggest managed realignment project in the UK. It is also is one of the country’s most important estuary habitats for birdlife. The original saltmarsh was isolated from the estuary in 1980 by the creation of an outer wall, and was used for growing crops.

With the climate changing and the sea level rising, the RSPB and the Environment Agency recognised the need to plan for the future and create stronger sea defences against flooding. Seawater has been let back in to flood the land, re-creating saltmarsh and providing space for nature. At the same time, the new saltmarsh acts as a buffer, soaking up some of the energy of the sea before it reaches the stronger, new sea defences.


The main goal of the marsh realignment was to protect existing built assets and infrastructure on adjacent sites against flooding and help the estuary adapt to the threat of sea level rise, avoiding adverse impacts on estuary processes. Other objectives included:

  • to create an intertidal habitat for nature conservation;
  • to create an intertidal habitat that has unhindered tidal exchange, requires minimal management and has the capacity to respond to dynamic estuarine change;
  • to avoid adverse effects on water quality and especially on bathing beaches as a result of faecal coliforms deposited in new intertidal areas by grazing animals;
  • to maintain or enhance the existing landscape character, including features of historic, archaeological and environmental importance.

In the past, this land might have been drained for farming. But allowing floodwater back on to the land returns it to salt marsh or mudflats. These can then absorb the impacts of higher sea levels and increased storm surges resulting from climate change.

The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds bought half of the land at Hesketh Out Marsh in 2006, to turn into a nature reserve. Since then, they have been working with the Environment Agency and other organisations to create salt marshes, creeks and lagoons. After first upgrading the original embankment inland, the Environment Agency then removed sections of an earlier (1980s) privately built embankment. This allowed high tides back on to the nature reserve to re-create 168 hectares of salt marsh habitat.

By working in partnership with the Environment Agency and with funding from Lancaster City Council and the Lancashire Rural Recovery Action Plan, the Hesketh Out Marsh project has greatly improved the local sea defence. Creating flood defences in this way uses more land but the initial cost is recouped over time in reduced maintenance costs of the associated sea defences. 

As a result of newly created habitats, wildlife in the area including water birds, invertebrates and fish has more chance of thriving. Avocet and redshank are among the birds that have already nested on the site and large numbers of lapwing, golden plover, shelduck, wigeon and teal are expected to use the site in the winter months.

The project also created a significant new recreational asset for the Ribble Coast & Wetlands Regional Park as well as a dynamic educational resource for students of coastal change and adaptation.

Further Information


Tony Baker, RSPB Ribble Sites Manager