Shifting Shores – Practical Lessons from a Decade of Coastal Adaptation

Phil Dyke
Coast and Marine Adviser, National Trust

T: 07766 511323

The first piece of land given to the Trust in 1895 was five acres of gorse-covered cliff top at Dinas Oleu overlooking Cardigan Bay in Wales.

Today the Trust cares for almost a tenth of the coastline in England, Wales and Northern Ireland (742 miles/1187 km) and includes every type of coast: dune, saltmarsh, soft cliff, hard cliff, as well as villages, infrastructure, harbours etc. We are very conscious that at many of these coastal special places we have some serious challenges to face up to associated with sea-level rise, in particular an increase in coastal erosion and flooding. This thinking sits under the Trust’s banner of ‘Shifting Shores’ and is guided by our coastal management principles:

  • Taking the long view – plan now but for the long-term, building in flexibility to enable us to find adaptive solutions that work for people and places.
  • Adapting to change – coastal defences have their place but we need to think more about how we adapt at the coast to cope with rising sea levels
  • Working together – partnership between coastal communities and organisations is vital if we are to find solutions that enable us to adapt to a changing coastline.
  • Working with nature – work with the forces of nature rather than against, adapting to change wherever possible.
  • Future forecasts suggest with increasing confidence that climate change will lead to continued sea-level rise [1] and increased storminess, in turn accelerating the scale and pace of coastal change [2].

A decade ago to help plan for this uncertain future the Trust commissioned research looking at how our coastline is likely to change over the next 100 years through a process of Coastal Risk Assessment (CRA – Halcrow 2004). The results of CRA painted an interesting picture of the future, with in excess of 70 hotspot coastal change locations being identified across the Trust. These are places where increased flooding and coastal erosion driven by sea level rise will pose an increasing threat to infrastructure, habitats, historic structures, community and third party interests. Over time we are developing Coastal Adaptation Strategies, a framework to help us manage change, for all our hotspot locations [3].

Our Coastal Risk Assessment research led to the publication of the first Shifting Shores document (National Trust 2005) [3]. The big message in Shifting Shores was and remains that it is unrealistic – in a time of rising sea levels – to think that we can continue to rely solely on engineering our way out of trouble on the coast as we have for the past 150 years. Through Shifting Shores we are promoting a discussion at a national, regional and local level about the importance of working with natural coastal processes. It is through understanding these processes and making space for change at the coast that we can, wherever practicable, make the switch from a hard coastal defences (which are time limited in their effectiveness and increasingly prone to failure), to an adaptive natural process based approach and roll-back out of the coastal risk zone.

2015 marks the 50th anniversary of the launch of the Neptune Coastline Campaign. 2015 is also the 10th year since the launch of Shifting Shores, a good time to reflect on the practical lessons we are learning from a decade of coastal adaptation, through project work that includes; community engagement around coastal change[4], removal of failed sea defences, roll-back and deepening our ownership to create space for future coast.

A formal review of Shifting Shores is under way (reporting autumn of 2015) but a number of insights have become clear along the way. These immediate points of learning apply within and beyond the National Trust and can be garnered under 4 headings that form the acronym PACE:

Politics: transcend the short term political perspective and have the confidence and courage to make the difficult decisions now – we owe this to ourselves and even more to future generations.

Adaptation: Work, through tangible projects (break through projects) to tell stories and demonstrate the validity of adaptation as a plausible companion to engineered defences.

Community: Engage, engage and engage with communities and stakeholders on shoreline management ……. exploring rising sea levels, extremes of weather and what it will mean for us.

Evidence: make timely decisions based on the best available evidence – if we wait for ‘perfect data’ it may be too late

Adopting a preference to work with natural processes and have adaptability as a guiding principle in the management of coastal change inevitably means that some of the decisions we face will be difficult and on occasion controversial. Our challenge within the Trust is to effectively communicate the long-term benefits of this approach, illustrating how we are putting this Shifting Shores thinking into practice through novel approaches to coastal conservation and in so doing create great opportunities for people and wildlife at the coast into the future.

Adaptive solutions [5] are not necessarily cheap to implement but they are future orientated and may be transformational. Re-establishing a naturally functioning shoreline, where ever practicable, does offer the chance for transformation, a chance to free ourselves from the ‘sea defence cycle’ – construct, fail and reconstruct.

A decade on from the publication of Shifting Shores, societal instinct to try and defend the land from the power of the sea at any cost remains strong, often overriding logic and an increasing body of evidence that suggests adaptation based approaches to managing coastal change have a part to play. On cost grounds alone adaptation must prove cheaper in the long-run, but there are multiple benefits: more desirable in terms of maintaining the natural beauty of our coast and a reduction in the risk of storing up the problems for future generations to deal with. If we begin this process now and start the conversation, we can find adaptive solutions to living with a changing coastline.

[1] Data for the sea-level rises in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries came from a report published by the IPCC in autumn 2013 
[2] Marine Climate Change Impacts Partnership Annual Report Card 2007- 08 
[3] Further information on coastal adaptation, Shifting Shores and video case studies can be found at
[4] Living with a Changing Coast (LiCCO), is European Interreg project on coastal change with a geographic focus on Devon, Dorset and Normandy but with a set of outputs and outcomes around good communication and engagement, that apply to managing coastal change where ever you are.
[5] Environment Agency (2010). Working with natural processes to manage flood and coastal erosion risk