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Walkers warned of coastal mudslides

By Western Morning News  |  Posted: January 04, 2013

  • Dodging waves for fossils: Professional 'fossil hunters' on the Jurassic Coast at Charmouth, Dorset, look for rich pickings earlier this week, after recent cliff falls Picture: Richard Austin

  • The Undercliff coast path from Seaton to Lyme Regis is closed after huge cracks appeared Picture: Richard Austin

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Walkers are putting their lives at risk by ignoring landslip warnings on the South West Coast Path – parts of which have become so unstable they are not solid enough to support someone's weight.

Coastguards have warned that large sections of the Westcountry's coastline are vulnerable to movement and are dangerous to walk on.

They are telling people to stay away from several sections of closed path along the popular route in Devon and Cornwall.

Simon Dennis, of Portland Coastguard, said: "With the poor weather continuing, we're dealing with a number of landslips and mudslides along the Devon and Dorset coastline. The current weather means water is draining from land very rapidly, causing a layer to form in cracks on cliffs.

"Large sections of our coast are now very vulnerable to movement, and even in drier weather, any sharp frost would bring expansion behind sections of cliff causing further falls.

"Areas of mudslide are prone to drying out and forming a crust. Although these may look solid, they will not support a person's weight."

Near record-breaking levels of rainfall in 2012 prompted the worst series of landslides in more than a decade on the £300 million-a-year tourist attraction.

The Maritime and Coastguard Agency said some walkers had disregarded warning signs by stepping over the tape on cordoned-off sections in dangerous and fragile coastal areas. Coastguards are urging people to observe warnings and closures at cliff edges because of the danger of landslips and mudslides.

They say large sections of the South West's fragile coast are sliding towards the sea, with landslides caused when heavy rainfall mixes with soft stone and rock to create "a potentially deadly porridge".

Authorities are monitoring numerous sections of coastline across the region, including a section on the west side of the island of Portland.

Dorset Police dealt with an area to the west of Lyme Regis which has seen "very significant movement" including buildings overhanging the cliff edge.

Philip Chappell, a coastguard in Weymouth, said: "Parts of the Jurassic Coast are notoriously fragile, particularly following this bad weather. The amount of rain we've had recently is turning parts of the cliff into a potentially dangerous porridge. The professional fossil hunters are no problem, they know the risks – but the amateurs don't really have a clue."

The South West Coast Path Association said warning signs and path closures were in place for public safety and should be observed.

Meanwhile, the landslips have also posed a threat to wildlife.

Harry Barton, chief executive of the Devon Wildlife Trust, said: "The extreme year of weather has had an impact on wildlife. Where sections of cliffs slipped the wildlife really suffered.

"We noticed it had a particularly bad effect on chicks, swallows and caterpillars."

Tony Whitehead, of the RSPB South West, said: "Ducks and geese don't mind the rain because they are capable of floating and flying above the water.

"Marshland at Exminster, which has a high population of bird species, did its job to store flood water whilst having no real impact on the birds. It is a good example of subtly working with nature to control flooding."

Torridge District Council organised for extra rock armour to be placed on the edge of the Northam Burrows in November to prevent further erosion taking place.

The site came under the spotlight after a former refuse tip buried below the burrows started to be uncovered by high spring tides.

Ian Hayter, a spokesman for the authority, said: "We've had an awful lot of rain combined with very high tides which has caused problems. The extra rainfall led to erosion on the estuary side, and the high tides went over the sand dunes and washed them away."

The British Geological Survey also issued a landslide and rockfall warning for the South West England with on-going concerns about the stability of cliff edges and sides after the recent heavy rain.

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