Page last updated at 03:02 GMT, Friday, 26 December 2008

Disappearing coast presents dilemma

By Alison Harper
BBC News, Studland, Dorset

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Alison Harper shows the dramatic effect of coastal erosion

It's a bright sunny day in Studland, Dorset. The wind catches the sand and whips it through the dunes and grasses. Helped by the tides, as each grain moves the shoreline slowly but inevitably shifts.

Emma Wright has worked for the National Trust at Studland for the past seven years.

As we walked along the beach she explained she had become used to seeing areas of the beach swept away.

In November it took just one storm for the sea to reclaim 15 metres of the beach.

Emma showed me red and white hazard tape flapping next to some wooden posts - these were all that remained of the wooden steps once used to access the car park.

"It's just the vegetation left which is holding the dune together and you can see it cracking all the way through.

"That will be just another chunk of dune grass to fall off into the sea with the next storm", she says.

Summer holidays

Studland isn't disappearing overnight - its situation is well documented and is just one section of 279km (173 miles) of coastline in south-west England at risk of erosion.

There are around one million visitors annually, but Emma admitted as the years go on there will be much less to visit.

She explained the rows of beach huts at Studland have been moved inland three times in the past.

"If you come on your summer holidays you want to be on a sandy beach.

"Once that sandy beach isn't there, you don't want to be sat in a car park. The beach hut becomes a shed," she says.

So can anything be done?

It is a dilemma for those keen to protect the beach and those who use it.

"People come here because it's so wonderfully natural, " Emma explains.

"The National Trust is about nature conservation."

Look at that - it's the open stretch of water and sand, it's just superb
Howard Oliver

That means managed retreat - leaving nature to take its course and the inevitable consequences of erosion.

It is one of those days which is perfect beach-walking weather as long as you are wrapped up warmly.

Howard and Sylvia Oliver come to visit Studland often from their home along the coast in Swanage.

They agree the beach should be left as it is.

Pointing towards Brownsea Island, Howard admired the coast: "Look at that - it's the open stretch of water and sand, it's just superb.

"I'd certainly be sad if we lost a lot of it."

He didn't want to see groynes - wooden or concrete barriers - put up in the sea to slow down the erosion.

"I think it would be a real shame, " he says.

Inevitable

The National Trust has experimented with gabions, metal grilles filled with rocks, which are supposed to soak up the force of the waves.

But they were washed away.

Studland Beach
Visitors to Studland will see far less as the years go by

Some visitors do believe in a more solid effort.

Clive Arnold was over with his family on the chain ferry for the afternoon.

"I think some drastic action needs to be taken pretty soon. I think if you left nature to take its course the beach would be eroded so fast.

"At least if you put groynes in there would be something left for the people to enjoy."

It is a view recognised by Emma but she believes it will only delay the inevitable and, anyway, the National Trust is well aware of the sacrifices it will have to make as the erosion continues.

Its own visitor centre, car park and restaurant will be lost.

To relocate would cost an estimated £3.6m and there is nowhere for it to go since most of this peninsula is closely protected as a designated Site of Specific Scientific Interest.

Ironically the National Trust is hampered by the very policies it supports.

No-one can tell how quickly the erosion will take effect. As the sand moves, other areas are enlarged.

"At the moment we're turning back the clock.

"We're where we were in Tudor times, the sand is moving around and the water has come in," but even with expert advice, Emma says the future is unknown and that is what makes her job at Studland unique.

"I'd love to know what it would look like in 100 years. It is ever changing and unpredictable".



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