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  • Julie Muller

THE EXE ESTUARY - Waders and Waterfowl


A welsh sheep dog looks over the sea wall on the Exe Estuary at sunset with green sea weed and eel grass on the sand flats
Bruno looking over the sea wall on the Exe Estuary

It was on the very first night of our holiday in Devon that our humans brought us down to see the estuary of the river Exe.

Being the middle of June, the weather was warm and barmy, and the sun was not due to set until very late.

As we walked through the Powderham Estate to reach it, we caught tantalising glimpses of the water glistening in the late evening sunshine, but we had to walk over a rather robust railway bridge before we actually reached the shoreline. This bridge seemed to creak and groan as we trotted over it. I, for one, was glad when we reached the other side. But, it was well worth it and Bruno rushed to the sea wall to get a closer view.

The Exe Estuary is a very special place and has been given all kinds of legal designations

– it is a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI); a Special Protection Area (SPA) and a Ramsar (wetland site). All of these designations are important to ensure the protection of the many thousands of waterfowl and waders that make this place their home for all or just part of the year. Some of the birds like the dark bellied Brent goose, Branta bernicla ,travel thousands of miles from Siberia to spend their winters here. Interestingly, the specific name ‘bernicla’ relates to a time when humans had no concept of migration, so when the geese abruptly disappeared every summer, humans were convinced that the birds had turned into barnacles.

It is about 7km from Exeter to the mouth of the Exe, and as the river flows to the sea it widens. At its mouth, it is protected by a long sandy spit called Dawlish Warren and this is another very special place with even more levels of protection.

It was beautiful looking across the estuary. The lights of the houses and settlements along its banks reflected in the water and, as the tide was not fully in , large expanses of sand and mud rose, like islands, above the water’s surface exposing slim fronds of green eelgrass – a food favoured by the Brent geese visitors. The water smelt different to anything that I had ever smelt before, and Bruno and I longed to just plunge into it, but Julie held tightly on to us. It would be all so easy for us to disturb the resident wildlife without us even realising it.

Within the sediment itself there are vast numbers of small animals such as lugworms, cockles, razor shells and sea potatoes (which are small brown furry looking sea urchins). These rich pickings are a vital reason why the Exe is favoured by so many waders and waterbirds. The Exe Estuary Management Partnership estimate that each cubic metre of Exe mud has the same calorific value as eating 14 Mars bars – I think Julie would prefer the chocolate!!

On a warm summer evening like tonight, the Exe looks calm and tranquil, and these conditions prevail even in the winter. In the most dreadful of weathers, it provides a safe refuge and refuelling station for many birds just passing through as well as those which have come to stay.

Over the years, the fortunes of many of our British birds have risen and fallen according to changes in human activity. One such bird, the Avocet, the familiar logo for the R.S.P.B (Royal Society for the Protection of Birds) was in severe decline but today it frequents the Exe in ever increasing numbers. It owes its success to the days during the second world war when the East Anglian beaches were flooded to prevent invasion. The reduced disturbance enabled it to successfully breed once again. This distinctive black and white bird is just one of hundreds of different species of bird which can be seen here. They use their upturned beak to sweep through the water, loosen the sediment and dislodge the invertebrates that make up their diet. They also have very keen eyesight and where the water is particularly clear they can catch their prey by sight.

All told – over 10,000 wildfowl and 20,000 waders call the Exe their home in the winter but that doesn’t mean that the estuary is ‘empty’ in the summer.

On the lovely June evening that we visited the Exe estuary there was plenty of bird activity both on the islands of sand and mud, on the foreshore and in the rough ground and marshes. On our way home on our first sortie to the water’s edge we saw the ghostly white shape of a barn owl silently hunting low over the vegetation.

On our second walk along the Exe several days later, we walked much further along the side of the estuary on the sea wall. We were amazed to see a multitude of black crow-like birds sitting on the mud flats nearest to the shore – clearly copying the feeding habit of the many waders that live here.

We were heading for the Turf hotel – a pub that can only be reached by foot, pedal, or hoof. As we walked a large number of cyclists whizzed past on the cycle path below us - clearly on their way to down a pint or two and, indeed when we reached the pub, the beer garden was littered with bicycles of all shapes and sizes.

Two sheepdogs le down in the evening sunshine in front of the Turf Hotel near Exeter in Devon
Bruno and Shep relax in the beer garden of the Turf Hotel near Exeter in Devon

At this point the Exe narrows considerably and it is here that it is joined by the Exeter shipping canal. To reach the pub we had to walk across narrow lock gates with water below us either side. it was really scary. I was convinced that Bruno was either going to fall in or to jump in. He is so uncoordinated and so clueless! However, tonight , thank goodness, he seemed to be perfectly sure-pawed.

As we sat in the beer garden, we could hear the beautiful bubble of the resident curlew wafting across to us on the gentle evening breeze. A gaggle of starlings flitted in and out of the trees swooping down to the water’s edge. We half expected to see a murmuration, but I think that the birds were just preparing to settle down for the night. On the water, a water skier glided across the surface of the clear calm water towed by a small fast speedboat. Although it looked exciting to be out on the water, I was glad to be on dry land.

It felt like a truly magical place– the air was barmy and warm, the water glistened in the late evening sunshine, divers birds called across to each other and the coral and peach sky heralded the end of another beautiful day.

The sun setting over the waters in the Exe Estuary near Exeter in Devon
A June sunset over the Exe Estuary

We were so sad that we would be leaving the Exe Estuary behind tomorrow.

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