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Exploring Pebblebed Heath near Budleigh Salterton on the Jurassic Coast

On a cold January day the Team at Fossil Coast visited Pebblebed Heath in the Otter Valley near Budleigh Salterton in Devon along the Jurassic Coast. This is a wonderful 55 hectare intertidal reserve and the largest area of lowland heath still remaining in the County of Devon managed by the Pebblebed Heaths Conservation Trust created from the Lower Otter Restoration Project (LORP) a partnership initiative between the land owners Clinton Devon Estates and the Environment Agency to address climate adaptation and habitat creation in restoring the floodplains of the Otter Estuary.

The Estuary at Pebble bed Heath near Budleigh Salterton along the Jurassic Coast
The Estuary at Pebble bed Heath near Budleigh Salterton along the Jurassic Coast

Pebblebed Heath is located within the historic Clinton Barony or Clinton Estate established by King Edward I (1239 – 1307) who rewarded John de Clinton for his service in the Scottish and French campaigns and to this day remain the stewards of this land.

Pebblebed Heath includes the Commons of Dalditch, Withycombe, Lympstone, East Budleigh, Bicton, Woodbury, Colaton Raleigh, Hawkerland, Aylesbeare and Harpford.

These Commons are rich in archaeology, wildlife and natural beauty, and are important for public recreation. The core area (excluding Lympstone, Withycombe and Venn Ottery Commons) is owned by Clinton Devon Estates and managed by the Pebblebed Heaths Conservation Trust.

Clear information and directions on The Pebblebed Heath
Clear information and directions on The Pebblebed Heath

The goal of the Lower Otter Restoration Project is create a healthy, sustainable Otter estuary and river, well connected to its floodplain, with active natural processes and a range of typical habitats and species. Flood risk is understood and managed in a coordinated way. Access to a network of footpaths and trails is maintained and improved where appropriate. Local landowners and communities are engaged in and supportive of management.

Pebblebed Heath lies within the East Devon Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and River Otter SSSI and whose estuary and saltmarshes like nearby Axe Estuary and Exe Estuary support a wide variety of breeding and wintering wildfowl and wader birds.

At the head of the River Otter estuary is both the red sandstone cliffs of Triassic Period Otter Sandstone and Lower Triassic Budleigh Salterton Pebble Beds made up of well-rounded cobbles and pebbles that result from the erosion of 400 million-year-old quartzite outcrops lying to the South-west of England.

The Mid Triassic epoch red sandstone cliffs of the Otter Sandstone Formation dated between the Anisian Age and Ladinian Age dating between 246.7 – 237.0 million years rests sharply on a ventifact bed of rocks or outcrops that have been eroded or abraded by the force of ancient winds on top of the Budleigh Salterton Pebble Beds.

The Otter Sandstone Formation has yielded many fossils of early fish, amphibians and reptiles including the rhynchosaur found at nearby Ladram Bay and on display at the Budleigh Salterton Arts Centre and Fairlynch Museum and Royal Albert Memorial Museum (RAMM) and Art Gallery in Exeter.

As you take the coastal walk towards the estuary from Budleigh Salterton High Street you will pass by cliffs rich infossil rhizoconcretions that are carbonate, usually calcite, concretions of vertical and sub-horizontal roots systems of ancient plants.

Pebblebed Heaths is captivating. Covering a significant expanse, these heaths boast a rich tapestry of flora and fauna, contributing to the area's ecological significance and biodiversity.

Rhizoconcretions of fossil roots systems of ancient plants in Budleigh Salterton
Rhizoconcretions of fossil roots systems of ancient plants in Budleigh Salterton

Spread across the picturesque Otter Valley, the Pebblebed Heaths derive their name from the distinctive rounded pebbles scattered across the landscape, remnants of ancient geological processes.

The ecological diversity of the Pebblebed Heaths is astounding, with a mosaic of habitats supporting various species creating a haven for both common and rare plants along with plethora of Spring and Summer time pollinators, showcasing the interconnectedness of the ecosystem.

In late November 2023 the Lower Otter Restoration Project announced that a new 70m footbridge was officially opened named the “Elizabeth Bridge”. The new bridge now enhances the accessibility to the South West Coast Path across the floodplain onwards and eastward to the East Devon village Otterton and named in commemoration of the reign of the late Queen Elizabeth II.

Along with the new bridge the Lower Otter Restoration Project has improved the resilience of the Lower Otter Valley from rising sea levels and floods by planting over 23,000 trees, some are part of the Queen’s Green Canopy (QGC) a unique tree-planting initiative created by Cool Earth to mark Her Majesty’s Platinum Jubilee in 2022.

They have also improved access to over 3.3Km of footpath’s in the Lower Otter Valley for the enjoyment of ramblers, young children and disabled ramblers with mobility requirements.

The Otter Valley itself plays a crucial role in the health of the Pebblebed Heaths. The river meanders through the landscape, providing water to a biodiverse range the flora and fauna that call this area home.

Birdwatchers enjoy in the Pebblebed Heaths as a multitude species stopover during migration. The open expanses of heathland provide excellent hunting grounds for birds of prey, while the woodlands offer nesting sites for songbirds. The symphony of birdcalls echoing through the trees adds a melodic backdrop to the natural beauty of the heaths.

Inland view from The Elizabeth Bridge
Inland view from The Elizabeth Bridge

As day transitions to night, the Pebblebed Heaths reveal another layer of their enchanting beauty. Stargazers are drawn to the area for its relatively low light pollution, providing a clear canvas for the stars.

Whether for a walk, cycle or jog these well managed mix of woodlands, saltmarsh and and river ecosystems set against a Triassic Period provides not only a refuge for a diverse array of flora and fauna. The Pebblebed Heaths of the Otter Valley in Devon near Budleigh Salterton along the Jurassic Coast is well worth a visit even on a cold winter's day in January.


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