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Millions of Tons of Earth Dug for New London Subway Line Became a New Bird Sanctuary


Ben Hall/RSPB Images

Multi-billion dollar civic engineering projects tend not to be good news for wildlife, but upon the completion of a new English underground railway line, the upturned earth was used to rebuild a coastal habitat for birds in Essex.

The new bird sanctuary instantly became one of the richest in Britain’s coastline for avocets, spoonbills, black-tailed godwits, and other wading birds.

The Elizabeth Crossrail is a high-speed line that runs from Reading to the west of London, through the capital, to Shenfield near the east coast. During the $24 million (£19 billion) project, seven million metric tons of soil was dug up to make thirteen underground railway tunnels, half of which were transported by boat to the eastern shore of the country.

The earth was taken to a place called Wallasea Island, once just a tiny peninsula of the wild Essex coastline, consisting of salt marshes, coastal lagoons, muddy flatlands, and other features, but several times during the Medieval period and after it was drained to make sheep pasture or farmland.

Farming often is not as profitable now as it was then, and as the defensive seawall was in need of repairs, the farmer that used to own the land sold it to the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds.

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“Massive amounts of soil were dug up from below the streets of London during tunneling needed to create the Elizabeth line,” said Rachel Fancy, site manager of RSPB Wallasea Island. “That material was given to the RSPB, allowing us to create our Jubilee Marsh, the cornerstone of our new reserve.”

Jubilee is the appropriate name in this case. Bird-friendly journalists from the Guardian, reporting on the state of Wallasea Island, now note the diversity of species and the rich numbers.

Hen and marsh harriers have appeared in winter while wigeon, teal, plover, yellow wagtail, lapwings, blackbirds, oystercatchers, and skylarks were all recorded in what reporters called a “nature lover’s paradise.”

It took 1,500 trips by canal to bring the dirt to Wallasea. Once there it was transported via conveyor belt to a dump, where tipper trucks slowly deposited it along the shoreline to create a steady sloping terrain up from the sea, protecting it from rising levels.

After the manicuring and landscaping was finished, the seawall was strategically breached in three separate places at low tide, which, once it rose again, gently partitioned the landscape into the various landscape features seen today, as opposed to turning it into a big muddy lake if the wall had been breached all at once at high tide.

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In its first year, Wallasea Nature Reserve hosted 150 breeding pairs of avocets, which is endangered-in-Britain, instantly making it one of the bird’s strongholds.

“We are really proud that Jubilee Marsh is helping to combat the threats from climate change and coastal flooding,” Mark Wild, Crossrail’s chief executive, told the Guardian.

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