People versus birds: Battle lines are drawn over flooding plan for Lower Clyst Valley
An environmental conflict billed as "people versus birds" has broken out over plans to allow sea waters to flood fields near Exeter and create a new inter-tidal habitat.
The Environment Agency (EA) and the RSPB want to conduct a "managed retreat" from farmland close to the River Exe, near Topsham, ending years of protection against rising sea levels.
Local residents and businessmen claim that abandoning the Lower Clyst Valley and simply letting nature take its course threatens to inundate a major route into the city ten times a year on spring tides.
Officials say EU laws require lost habitats to be replaced but locals say there is plenty of mud in the estuary.
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Nigel Cheffers-Heard, who lives at the 16th century Bridge Inn beside a crossing over the Clyst connecting Exeter with the east of the Exe estuary, said years of conflict had boiled down the simple question: which is more important – birds or people?
Mr Cheffers-Heard said the EA and the RSPB were employing Orwellian 'Newspeak' to describe a "land grab" which would actually result in "habitat destruction".
"We who live in the Lower Clyst are very aware of the need to balance the competing requirements of the environment, wildlife, farming, commerce, and local infrastructure. It comes down to people versus birds and I will always go for the people."
The project is part of a greater Exe Estuary plan, which proposes to "hold the line" at some points along the tidal river with "managed realignment" at others.
Opponents claim that flooding prime farm land is "madness" at a time when food production needs to rise to feed a growing population.
The owners of Darts Farm and shop, where Ruby Red cattle graze the adjoining fields of Topsham flats, also fear the scheme.
Michael Dart said: "The cost of this is that the people of Topsham and east Devon could see their futures drastically affected."
The Environment Agency and the RSPB claim that rising sea levels were eroding birds' natural habitats but have promised that the main road will be protected as part of the scheme.
Campaigners against the scheme say studies by consultants for the EA predict the road is likely to flood about 10 times a year on spring tides. They says a protection scheme could cost around £10 million and could not be justified for the "theoretical protection of a few birds" during a time of austerity.
The RSPB said "iconic" wading birds such as avocets, which are regularly seen on the River Clyst, and black-tailed godwits, needed help.
Spokesman Tony Whitehead said: "We want to do the best by the wildlife in a very special place."
The EA said it was looking at options to improve flood protection to the road.
"This could be done by raising the road on a causeway or building new embankments," a spokesman added.
A consultation on the Exe plan closes on Monday.