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Restored saltmarshes lack the topographic diversity found in natural habitat

Lawrence, PJ, Smith, Graham, Sullivan, MJP and Mossman, Hannah (2018) Restored saltmarshes lack the topographic diversity found in natural habitat. Ecological Engineering, 115. pp. 58-66. ISSN 0925-8574

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Saltmarshes can be created to compensate for lost habitat by a process known as managed realignment (MR), where sea defences are deliberately breached to flood low-lying agricultural land. However, the vegetation that develops on MR sites is not equivalent to natural habitat. In natural sites, surface topography and creek networks are drivers of vegetation diversity, but their development on restored sites has not been well studied. We investigate the topographic characteristics of 19 MR areas, and compare these to nearby natural saltmarshes (representing desired conditions) and to coastal agricultural landscapes (representing conditions prior to MR). From high-resolution LiDAR data, we extracted values of elevation, six measures of surface topography (although two were later excluded due to colliniarity), and three measures of creek density. MR and natural marshes differed significantly in all surface topographic indices, with MR sites having lower rugosity and more concave features, with greater potential for water accumulation. MR sites also had significantly lower creek density. MRs and coastal agricultural landscapes were more similar, differing in only one topographic measure. Importantly, there was no relationship between age since restoration and any of the topographic variables, indicating that restored sites are not on a trajectory to become topographically similar to natural marshes. MR schemes need to consider actively constructing topographic heterogeneity; better mirroring natural sites in this way is likely to benefit the development of saltmarsh vegetation, and will also have implications for a range of ecosystem functions.

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