The Helford Voluntary Marine Conservation Area
"Community, commerce and conservation working together to ensure the harmonious use of the river."
The Helford River is well known for its scenic beauty and for the importance of its marine wildlife. This sheltered arm of the sea, with a low freshwater input, reaches inland for some nine kilometres and its wooded, muddy creeks, mixed shingle banks and rocky shores offer a wide range of different habitats for an exciting variety of animals and algae, many of particular importance along the Cornish coast.
Exploration of the rock pools found on the shores at the mouth of the river will reveal colourful, iridescent algae, such as Cystoceira tamariscifolia, purple coralline encrustations and trailing thong weed. Rock crevices shelter many anemones, including the nationally scarce trumpet anemone. The Cornish sucker, the shanny, rocklings, gobies and many other small fish live amongst the rocks and algae. Low spring tides expose the kelp forests which are home to a host of marine animals and other algae.
As far up river as Durgan and Bosahan, rock crevices shelter colourful jewel anemones and a rich assemblage of sponges, molluscs and hydroids. A rarer inhabitant of the muddier shores further up river is the Couch s goby. This small fish was first identified in 1974 from a site within the Helford River. Amongst the brown algae and stones can be found other small gobies, the butterfish, and the worm pipefish in which the male can often be seen carrying the eggs in a brood pouch. The maroon beadlet anemones are common on the shores, but less obvious are the myriads of anemones, such as the daisy anemone, living buried in the gravelly mud, and the exceptional assemblages of worms (more than 200 species). Of particular interest are the peacock worm, the tubeworm and the slimetube worm (this is far more beautiful than its name suggests!). Although the intertidal eel grass at Treath, Helford Passage and Gillan disappeared in the mid-1980s, sub-tidal beds off Durgan remain and are rich habitats for many fish, anemones, crabs and cuttlefish. Perhaps one day divers will have the pleasure of seeing the seahorse swimming in our waters once again. Amongst the important commercial fish species are sea bass, for which the HVMCA is a protected nursery area.
The traditional collection of cockles and edible periwinkles continues, alongside the commercial production of the famous Helford oysters. Shore and woodland birds take advantage of the rich mixture of food exposed at low water, and herons from the historic heronry in Polwheveral Creek can be seen throughout the river. In recent years, the snowy-white little egret has spread to many estuaries along the south coast, and maximum counts of 23 have been recorded in the Helford River.
In the early 1980s, concerns about a perceived decline in the variety of species and communities to be found intertidally resulted in the first Helford River Survey, which was carried out by Sue Hocking and Roger Covey. The CTNC Newsletter No.46 of October 1987 summarises their work and draws attention to the inevitable pressures arising from the extensive use of the river and its shores.
Protection through a statutory designation was felt to be too intrusive to the traditional usage of the river, and so a voluntary approach was adopted with the establishment of the Helford Voluntary Marine Conservation Area. The overseeing consultative group is drawn from the local community and represents the widest possible range of interests, from fishing to tourism, farming to marine engineering, sea fisheries conservation, Parish, District and County Councils, other statutory or non-statutory bodies and adjacent landowners.
Meeting regularly throughout the year, this group runs a mixed programme of surveys, public events and educational meetings. Reports and newsletters are circulated widely. Liaison is an important factor, so that problems can be addressed at an early stage. Vital support has been received from WWF (UK), from English Nature and from local sources.
Whilst it was difficult to isolate any one cause for the detrimental changes highlighted in the 1986 report, certain factors were pinpointed and, ten years later, these can be updated: Ñ TBT-based anti-fouling paints have been banned and the growth of shellfish has reverted to normal. Ñ The regulatory authorities have overseen the upgrading of farm waste arrangements. Ñ Sewage regulations are more stringently upheld.
Ñ Bait collection and shellfish gathering have received intense publicity to discourage excessive damage, but still remain a problem at times. Tradition dies hard! Ñ The six-knot speed limit is enforced with the help of a Kerrier District Council Water Bailiff, who also discourages boats from anchoring and causing damage to the sensitive eel grass beds. Since 1986, many more surveys have revealed some remarkable and healthy communities, which have been recognised by the inclusion of most of the Helford VMCA, with the Fal, in the proposed Special Area of Conservation designation now awaiting EU ratification.
There are now 15 active VMCAs around the UK, and more are proposed. This significant interest in the marine environment bodes well for the future and long may this continue.
Examples of the Helford River s exceptional worm assemblage. Illustration: Andrew Tompsett
Currently working on an MPhil study of peacock worm populations, Pamela has co-ordinated the HVMCA Group since 1988. She joined the Trust s conservation staff this year, after eight years with the CBRU, following our recent merger.