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Dart Estuary – Natural Beauty for All

Our estuaries are a defining feature of the South Devon Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, all of them special and all unique in their own way. The Dart estuary is the area of the River Dart where the freshwaters of the river and wider catchment meet and mix with the saltwater of the sea; for the Dart estuary, the proportion of freshwater to saltwater is significant and during heavy rain, freshwater can dominate as far out as Dartmouth castle! When much of the Earth’s waters were frozen within the colossal ice sheets of the last Ice Age, the area we now know as the estuary was a deep river-cut valley and the River Dart would have met the sea 120m lower than today. As the Ice Age thawed, meltwaters refilled the oceans and sea levels rose, flooding the area we now know as the Dart Estuary … or for many, the ‘River Dart’; this form of estuary is a ria or drowned river valley, with typical steep sided valleys and deep narrow creeks  – giving us the beautiful and sheltered harbours, we find today.

Despite their beauty and apparently calm waters, the ever-changing salinity, tides and weather can make estuaries a very challenging environment for wildlife – but, for those that can survive here, estuaries are food-rich, supporting massively productive and globally important ecosystems. An ecosystem that also benefits us with clean water, food and air, multi-watersports playgrounds and areas of quiet, tranquillity and outstanding natural beauty. Find yourself in the right place at the right time and you’ll see seals and otters, kingfishers and ospreys and for the lucky few even the glimpse of a seahorse or dolphin. The Dart’s community do not take these riches for granted and realise that we all play an active part in keeping our waters special; our local problems tend to be from the cumulative impacts of tiny, but all too frequent, issues – so every positive effort really does count.

The South Devon AONB Estuaries Management Plan has a clear aim of ensuring the balanced conservation management of our estuaries and their surrounding water catchments for us all – not just for the birds, the fish and the crabs. As with this guide, it gives guidance on actions that we can all make, no matter how small.For more information, visit: or contact the South Devon AONB Estuaries Officer,  phone 01803 861465 or email [email protected]