The Pier provides an outstanding location to see the richness of the natural environment of the Severn Estuary. The tidal range in the Estuary is one of the highest in the World and makes it an internationally important area for coastal habitat biodiversity and conservation. there are many conservation designations in place to help to protect it all.
There is amazing life amongst the rocks and mud on the beach by the Pier and lurking beyond the waves. The coastal and marine environments of Somerset are rich ecosystems that connect terrestrial environments to the sea through rivers and streams. Avon Wildlife Trust and Somerset Wildlife Trust are working to protect these vital coastal habitats to allow wildlife to flourish and the Pier acknowledges the two Trusts expert help in preparing these pages.
We encourage you to view the Estuary from the Pier, to explore the neighbouring Clevedon beach and learn more about the wildlife. Our web site provides an introduction to the remarkable wildlife along the shore, on the tidal flats, and in the air and sea.
There are local actions too that you can participate in. Somerset Wildlife Trust runs ShoreSearch surveys as part of national citizen science project organised by The Wildlife Trusts movement. These surveys involve groups of volunteers recording the abundance and distribution of intertidal organisms (from snails through to seaweeds) using set sampling protocols at different shores all along the Somerset and North Somerset coast. Rocky and muddy shores are sampled, and training is given via online resources and during the surveys themselves. No prior knowledge or experience is needed to get involved. To find out more visit the Somerset Wildlife Trust website here
Invertebrates of estuaries and mudflats – Some of the most important coastal ecosystems of the Bristol Channel consists of the estuarine habitats of mud-flats, sandy shores and salt marshes which are rich in nutrients and often also act as vital carbon ‘sinks. The mud-flats dominate the view of the coast at the Pier at low tide. There are multitudes of invertebrate species thriving in these environments, from crustaceans to worms, which in turn provide food for larger invertebrate species and for vast populations of fish and birds such as waders, wildfowl and gulls.
PLEASE TAKE EXTREME CARE WHEN EXPLORING MUDDY ENVIRONMENTS. SOFT MUD, FAST MOVING TIDES AND CURRENTS MEAN THAT YOU MUST ALWAYS HEED LOCAL WARNINGS AND ALWAYS ENSURE YOU DO NOT GET CUT OFF OR STUCK. MUD CAN KILL!
Some of the species you are likely to encounter with a bit of exploration include:
Shore Crabs – this ubiquitous crustacean can be found in all sorts of habitats and can grow up to 10-15 centimetres wide. Live crabs lurk in sand or mud or in pools or seaweed. You may often find the carapaces, which they moult as they grow, washed up on the shore. Sometimes called green crabs (although they come in all colours and patterns) they are scavengers eating a wide range of living or dead items and they are brilliantly adapted to the ever-changing conditions they live in. Find out more here.
Sand-hoppers – these tiny crustaceans (scientifically called ‘gammarid’ shrimps) are only a centimetre or so or smaller in size. They are most often seen when you turn over stones or rummage amongst washed up seaweed on muddy or sandy shores or estuary edges and often jump like fleas when they are uncovered. There are many species, which need an expert eye and hands lens to tell apart, and each is adapted to slightly different conditions. Some can tolerate or live in freshwater and others can survive in a whole range of salinities. Some can live out of water in damp, moist environments such as in piles of rotting seaweed, whereas others are totally aquatic. They are usually herbivores or detritivores (which means they feed on decaying algae and plant matter). They are just one of many groups of small crustaceans (shrimps, prawns and slaters) that are part of this ecosystem. Find out more here.
Left to right: Shore Crab (Nigel Phillips), Sand-hopper (The Wildlife Trusts), Gammarid Shrimp (Nigel Phillips) and Lugworm holes and castes (Nigel Phillips), Lugworm (Nigel Phillips) and Ragworm (Nigel Phillips).
Segmented worms (scientifically known as annelid worms) are a vital component of soft sediment habitats. There are many species some of which feed on organic matter in the mud or sand, some of which filter matter or plankton out of the water and others which prey on other invertebrates. Many live under the surface most of the time, either crawling freely through the sediment or living in semi-permanent tubes burrowed in the mud or cases constructed of small organic and inorganic particles. Although they are difficult to identify, several species can be fairly easily told apart.
Lugworms look very similar to earthworms and are in the same group (the oligochaetes). They have a few bristles at one end of their long smooth body, which can grow to up to 40 centimetres long. They live in deep U-shaped tubes in the mud and their presence can often be spotted by a small entry hole on the surface and a few centimetres away a ‘caste’ of mud they have pushed out of their rear end having digested any organic matter in the mud as they take it through their bodies. Find out more here.
Left to right: Sand-mason worms – 3cm (Nigel Phillips), Limpets – 5cm (Nigel Phillips), Limpet Tracks (Nigel Phillips
Limpets and other sea-shore snails – Limpets are marine snails which are commonly found on intertidal rocky shores all along the Somerset coast. They are amazingly well adapted to the harsh conditions of the intertidal zone, surviving all sorts of weather conditions when the tide is down as well as predation from birds, like the oystercatcher, and when the tide is up, from fish and crabs. Limpets feed at high tide or in damp conditions at night, by slowly crawling along and scraping off the microscopic algal film that coats the rocks using a rasping tongue called a radula. To find out more click here.
Most limpets you will find in Somerset are from the genus Patella (which means ‘knee-cap’ in latin) and they are just one of many other species of intertidal marine snails that can be found. They are other grazers like periwinkles and topshells, as well as predatory snails like dogwhelks that feed on barnacles, mussels and sometimes other snails by drilling down through the shells of their prey.
Left to right: Egg wrack, Channel Wrack, Serrated wrack, Spiral wrack, Brown wrack & green gut weed on boulders beneath the Toll House and red comb – on a pebble (all photos Nigel Phillips).
Wracks and other seaweeds – Many of the relatively sheltered rocky shores of the Bristol Channel are dominated by a thick covering of brown seaweed. There are several different species – most of which belong to a group of seaweeds called wrack (also known scientifically as ‘fucoids’). Wracks, like all seaweeds, are in fact algae, rather than true plants, and are much simpler in their structures. They consist of fronds which, like plant leaves, photosynthesize but which also take up nutrients as seaweeds don’t have roots. They also have a stalk (or stipe) and are attached to the surface by a sticky and often claw-like structure called a holdfast. The brown colour of the wracks is due to the presence of a pigment that allow them to capture light even when they are submerged under murky water. Species of wracks you may find in Somerset include;
Bladder wrack – which has pairs of air-filled bladders along its fronds. It can grow to over 50 centimetres long. Click here for more details.
Egg wrack – which has very long strap like fronds with single air-filled bladders. Fronds can grow to over 2 metres long. Click here for more details.
Channel wrack – a small species (about 5 – 10 centimetres long) that grows in dense clumps right at the top of the shore. It can survive drying out by trapping water in its tightly in- rolled fronds. Click here for more details.
Serrated wrack (Saw wrack) – which has no bladders but has a serrated or saw-like edge to its fronds. It can grow to over 50 centimetres long. Click here for more details.
Spiral wrack – which is found at the top of the shore. It is similar to bladder wrack in size and appearance but it has no bladders and twists around on itself when it dries. Click here for more details.
Other seaweeds – If you look more carefully, as well as the large brown wracks, you may find other types of seaweed. Many of the smaller species belong to different groups of algae. Red seaweeds, including species such as irish moss, pepper dulse and sea laver, tend to live in rock pools or under or attached to the larger browns. Green seaweeds such as gut weed and sea lettuce also live in rock pools and can also tolerate living on mud or next to freshwater streams running down a shore.
Coastal Birds of the Bristol Channel – The Severn Estuary and the upper reaches of the Bristol Channel are of international conservation importance for both migratory and resident wildfowl and wading birds, who take advantaging of the nutrient rich mudflats and the vast assemblage of invertebrates and microscopic life that thrives as a result, using the area as both a breeding ground and a winter refuge. Just some of the coastal birds you may see are shown and described below.
Left to right: Redshank in flight (Nigel Phillips), Redshank (Nigel Phillips), Dunlin in flight (Nigel Phillips), Dunlin (Nigel Phillips), Oystercatchers in flight (Nigel Phillips), Oystercatcher (Ben Simmonds), Herring Gull (Gillian Day), Lesser Black-backed Gull (Derek Moore) and Black-headed Gull (Amy Lewis),.
Redshank is a large sandpiper with long, bright red legs, this is a typical wader, feeding in shallow water around estuaries, marshes, mudflats and coastal wetlands. It breeds on open marshes and saltmarshes. Look for it posed on top of a post, fence or rock in coastal wet grassland or farmland areas. As well as its red legs, the Redshank has a straight bill, which is red at the base and black at the end. When it flies, it shows a white triangular wedge up its back and a wide, white triangle on its rear. Find out more here.
Dunlin are smaller than the redshank this is another a sandpiper, which can be found at the coast all year round, preferring estuaries, where it seeks out insects, worms and molluscs to eat. In winter, it feeds in large flocks and roosts in nearby fields and saltmarshes. In summer, it breeds in the uplands of the UK. The Dunlin is unmistakable in its summer plumage: adults are brick-red above, with a black belly patch. In its winter plumage, the Dunlin is grey above and white underneath. Find out more here.
Oystercatchers are very noisy wading bird with a loud ‘peep-ing’ call. On the coast, they specialise in eating shellfish, particularly limpets, cockles and mussels, which they either prise or hammers open with their strong, flattened, long, red bill. This bird has a black head, back and wings, and a white underside with pinky-red legs. Originally a coastal species, the Oystercatcher has moved further inland over the last 50 years to breed on waterways and lakes. Most UK birds still spend their winters by the sea, however, and are joined by birds from Norway and Iceland. Find out more here.
Other species you might spot include Grey Plover, Sanderling, Curlew and even Avocet which now breed at Steart Marshes. Also watch out for Heron and Little Egret and for wildfowl such as Wigeon, Teal, Pintail and Mallard, as well Shelduck with come to the River Parrett in large numbers to moult in late summer and early autumn.
Some of the most commonly seen birds along the Somerset coast are seagulls. There are in fact several species you can spot. Gulls are members of a large, widespread family of seabirds. They sometimes get a bad reputation for stealing chips, but they are intelligent, adaptable and often beautiful birds. However, they’re notoriously difficult to identify. Their plumage changes as they age and there’s a great deal of variation within species. The gulls you are most likely to see in the Bristol Channel are Herring Gulls, Lesser Black-backed Gulls and Black-headed Gulls.
Adult Herring Gulls are told apart from most gulls by their large size, pale grey upper parts and pink legs. In summer they have a white head, which develops dark streaking in winter. They nest on the islands of Steep Holm and Flat Holm but also have colonies in more urban settings and are often found far inland. Although the most likely species to encounter at the seaside their numbers have been threatened recently because they succumb to diseases like botulism which they contract form scavenging on human waste at landfill sites and elsewhere.
Lesser Black-backed Gulls are a similar size to a herring gull, but often slightly smaller. Adults are recognised by their slate-grey upperparts (contrasting with blacker wing-tips) and bright yellow legs. They nest on the offshore islands and in 2020 Flat Holm had over 4,000 breeding pairs, approximately 3% of the British breeding population. You may also occasionally see Great Black-backed Gulls (a few pairs breed on Steep Holm). They are world’s largest gull, and have a heavy bill and large square head that makes the eye seem small and beady. Adults have blackish upperparts and pale pinkish legs.
Black-head Gulls are much smaller gulls. Adults have pale grey upperparts and dark reddish legs and bill. In summer the head is dark brown (not actually black!). In winter the head is mostly white, with dark smudges on the ears and above the eyes. The bill also develops a dark tip. In flight, look for a distinctive white leading edge to the wing, visible at some distance. As well as at the coast they are a familiar sight on farmland, wetland and coastal habitats. It nests on saltmarshes and on islands in flooded gravel pits and reservoirs, and sometimes forms very large, noisy colonies.
Find out more here.
Another bird that you may see on our coast, and often up rivers is the Cormorant (see photo). This large, black, almost prehistoric looking species, feeds on fish, which it catches with its long, hook-tipped bill while swimming underwater. Cormorants nest on low cliffs around the coast (including on Steep Holm), or in colonies in trees on lakes and flooded gravel pits. They can often be spotted perched on a rock or bank with their wings held out so that they can dry their feathers off which are not waterproof.
You may also see smaller inland birds at the coast such as the thrush-like Rock Pipit that feeds in the splash zone on snails and other invertebrates. Occasionally rarer migrants are recorded. For instance Black Redstart is a rare visitor to the UK migrating to winter here from central and eastern Europe. This bird has been observed over several years on the rocks below the Pier tollhouse.
You can find out a lot more about Somerset Coastal Birds by visiting the WWT Steart Marshes website here.
Left to right: European eel (Jack Perks), Lesser spotted catshark (Nigel Phillips) and Cod (Darin Smith).
Fish of the Bristol Channel – In the past there was a thriving fishing industry of herring and other fish in the Bristol Channel, but this is much less the case today. Along the Somerset coast there are still small-scale commercial fishing activities, with some individuals still occasionally putting out fish nets between posts in the intertidal such as the Sellick family who continue traditional ‘mud-fishing’ at Stolford and at Watchet and Minehead. There were also extensive shrimp, oyster and whelk fisheries along the coast, but all have now disappeared.
At least the absence of large intensive commercial fisheries means one less threat to the fish populations of the Channel, but human activity is still impacting on many fish species from water pollution to dredging the seabed for aggregates. Over-engineering of rivers that feed into the Channel for flood management and agriculture purposes have seriously curtailed the migratory behaviour of species like the European Eel and the rare but locally important Twaite Shad (a relative of salmon and trout). Huge fish-kill can also be caused by shoals being sucked into the cooling systems of power stations, like Hinkley Point.
We know very little about the status and health of many fish species, although anecdotal evidence from sea anglers suggests declining stock and shifting distributions (perhaps also linked in part to climate change), but beneath the muddy waters there is still a lot going on. Bass, Cod, Lesser Spotted Cat Sharks, Pollack and different species of flatfish, skates and rays are all still common.
The European Eel is worth mentioning in more detail. With an extraordinary life cycle which starts in the Sargasso Sea near Bermuda and takes it across the Atlantic Ocean to Europe and then back again (including into many Bristol Channel rivers), the European eel makes one of the most astonishing animal migrations observed in nature. Sadly, the number arriving in Europe has fallen by around 95% in the last 40 years. It can be found in a wide variety of freshwater and estuarine habitats, where they spend the majority of their lives. They also spend up to a few years migrating across the Atlantic Ocean to and from their spawning grounds.
Adult European eels have a broad diet that includes fish, molluscs and crustaceans. They also scavenge on dead fish. The eel is also reported to leave the water and enter fields to feed on slugs and worms. Small eels feed on insect larvae and worms as well as molluscs and crustaceans.
Porpoises and other sea mammals – Although porpoises, dolphins, whales and seals are more usually associated with places like Scotland, Wales and Cornwall, the Bristol Channel does have its own resident Harbour Porpoise population and dolphin species and even occasionally whales are spotted each year in our waters. Both grey and common seals have also been sighted and, like porpoises, sometimes even swim up rivers like the Avon and the Parrett.
Harbour porpoises are relatively small compared to other dolphins. They have small, rounded heads with no beak and dark lips and chin. They have robust, stocky bodies, with predominantly dark brown backs with a pale grey or white underside, blending half-way up their sides. A small triangular fin set just past the centre of the back is one of its very distinctive features. The word ‘porpoise’ is derived from the Latin word for pig – porcus. The harbour porpoise used to be known as the ‘puffing pig’, because of the sneeze-like puffing sound they make when they breathe!
Porpoises breeching (photo courtesy of the Wildlife Trusts).
To find out more about them how they are under-threat and how you can help them visit the Whale and Dolphin Conservation here.
You can join our active Sea Watch survey team organised by Somerset Wildlife Trust and the local Sea Watch Foundation representative. We run regular surveys at headlines and harbours along the Somerset Coast usually about once a month on a Sunday as well as organising training sessions and other related activities.
To find out more and access training videos and annual sightings reports click here. If you have any sightings of any sea mammals locally or nationally (like porpoise (see image – Wildlife Trusts) they can be recorded here. There is also a Facebook Page where sightings are posted and discussed at Somerset and Exmoor marine mammal sightings.
Bats at the Pier – Clevedon Pier offers fantastic foraging opportunities for a range of bat species, particularly during still evenings when insects are abundant. Our smallest bat, the common pipistrelle, can consume up to 3,000 insects in one night, making them a wonderful ally to farmers, gardeners and fruit growers. Bats are the only mammal capable of true flight and use echolocation to assist with flying and catching prey. Sound waves are sent out from their nose or mouth and returned as echoes to provide a sonic map of their surroundings. Due to declining numbers they and where they live (known as roosts) are protected under UK law. Seven species have been recorded at the Pier using static detectors, namely Nathusius pipistrelle, Soprano pipistrelle, Common pipistrelle, Noctule, Leislers, Serotine and Barbastelle.
The Pier and the neighbouring Gordano valley is located in band C of North Somerset and Mendips Bat SAC (Special Area of Conservation) offering bats vital connectivity for both foraging and commuting. The Gordano Valley is a low-lying, poorly drained peat moor between the towns of Clevedon and Portishead. The area is a discrete self-contained water catchment criss-crossed by a network of drainage ditches (locally called rhynes) and is of exceptional botanical, ornithological, entomological and stratigraphic interest. The area is surrounded and enclosed by limestone ridges supporting species-rich calcareous grassland and ancient woodland habitats, which results in a wide diversity of habitats within a relatively small area that offers many roosting conditions for all 17 known species of breeding bats, in including the rare lesser and greater horseshoe bats.
Surveys commissioned by the Pier have helped safeguard the local bat population by ensuring the lighting on the Pier causes minimal disturbance. The rockface beneath the Toll house is left unlit.
At Avon Wildlife Trust we take part in the Bat Conservation Trust National Bat Monitoring Programme, details can be found here. This allows us to record more information about bats that will feed into conservation management plans. You can also get involved with your local bat group here.
The Clevedon Pier and Heritage Trust thanks Mark Ward (Somerset Wildlife Trust) for providing the content for the Board and the web site information.