Salcombe’s expansive estuary is home to diverse and rare wildlife both in its waters and on its 30-mile shoreline, lined with a myriad walks, and mostly wooded and steep-sided where the estuary meets the sea.
A deep river valley that was flooded during the last ice age, the mostly marine estuary snakes inland, filling narrow tidal creeks and covering an extensive area at high tide. As the tide sucks out, it exposes mudflats, sandflats and salt marshes which are a fertile feeding ground for wildlife, from seahorses to sharks.
But much of the estuary is inaccessible by car, so walking or travelling by boat is the best options for spotting the birds and other animals that live in and around its ever-changing waters.Exploring the Salcombe Estuary in all its beauty. Definitely one for the bucket list! Click To Tweet
Tide is high
Salcombe estuary is technically a drowned river valley, known as a ria, rather than an estuary because it’s fed only by streams, and not a major river. This means that the estuary is mostly tidal up to five miles inland, as far as Kingsbridge.
So there is an abundance of seabirds and you can smell the tang of sea air even a few miles away from the sea itself. And you can see evidence of this with the seaweed growing up the quay wall in Kingsbridge.
Fed by springs over 140 metres above sea level, streams provide the only freshwater running into the estuary, apart from run-off from fields within the catchment area. They include those from Bowcombe, Frogmore, East Allington, Sherford and Batson, plus other small streams from the surrounding villages.
But pollutants from agriculture like slurry and manure, which find their way into the streams that flow into the estuary, are threatening its wildlife, particularly molluscs.
A Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and a nature reserve, the estuary has been recognised for its unique ecosystem and for being a major maritime and mudflat habitat that supports a rich array of flora and fauna.
With its endless stream of scenic views, it’s no surprise it’s been designated Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) – and was even being mooted as a national park in the 1930s. It also forms part of the South Devon Heritage Coast area.
Spot a seahorse
The mudflats and sand in the lower estuary are home to some rare flora and fauna. Eelgrass beds provide a nursery environment for seahorses, otherwise uncommon in the UK, and are an important habitat for fish species.
The threatened fan mussel (Atrina fragilis) is also found here, while mussels and non-native Pacific oysters are farmed in Frogmore Creek. If you’re lucky, you can sometimes spot whales, dolphins and basking sharks in the estuary, while otters forage in the creeks for shellfish like crabs and mussels.
In the intertidal mudflats in the estuary’s upper reaches near Kingsbridge, you can find a diverse range of worms, anemones and bivalves like mussels, which attract fish and wading birds.
Curlews, kingfishers and cormorants
Home to important breeding and feeding grounds, the estuary is a haven for birds. In the mudflats in the upper reaches of the estuary near Kingsbridge, low tide is the peak time for spotting birds like curlews, oystercatchers and redshank.
More waders congregate at Ham Point at high tide, and little egrets and grey herons breed in the woods bordering the estuary. If you want to see gannets doing their dramatic dive-bombs into the water for fish, head to the coastal path near the sandbar at the narrow mouth of the estuary.
Bowcombe Creek near Kingsbridge is known for the elusive kingfisher and its nesting swans, and other creeks are home to mallards, shelducks and cormorants. During winter, you can spot teals and wigeons.
Handle with care
To maintain the healthy populations of flora and fauna in the estuary, make sure you don’t go too near animals and their young, including large marine mammals, like dolphins, which need a lot of space. Eelgrass beds are fragile and easily damaged by motor boats going too close, so keep your distance.
Stick to the speed limit on the water, because fast boats can disturb wildlife in the estuary, as can the substantial amount of wash produced by watercraft.
If you fancy experiencing the estuary the slow way, footpaths follow the borders of the estuary. Circular walks from Salcombe skirt around the lower reaches near the sea, including East Portlemouth to Mill Bay across from Salcombe, or along Batson Creek, such as Salcombe to Snapes Point.
Other footpaths further north hug the shores of creeks, like Bowmore from Kingsbridge and Frogmore to West Charleton.
Row the boat
Boats ply the waters from Salcombe to Kingsbridge, like the Rivermaid ferry service, which operates during the summer months. They also run evening creek cruises. The best way to appreciate the tranquil seclusion of these tidal waterways is, however, on a boat without an engine.
Pick up a handy National Trust canoe map of the estuary, hire either a kayak or a canoe and paddle your way around the creeks. Check tide times before setting out, as creeks with their extensive mudflats won’t be accessible at low tide.