World-leading research from SWEEP’s marine and wave forecasting teams has played a key role in the region being recognised for the quality of its waves and its thriving blue economy. This helped to secure World Surfing Reserve (WSR) status for North Devon making it the first region in the UK to do so. It joins globally-renowned surfing locations in Australia, California, Portugal and southern America. In this film, SWEEP’s Wave Forecasting Team contributed part of the science that lead to North Devon’s status as a World Surf Reserve.
The designation, awarded by the Save the Waves Coalition, covers approximately 30km of coastline including iconic surfing locations such as Croyde, Saunton, Woolacombe and Lynmouth. It recognises the high quality and diversity of surf breaks, but also the unique natural beauty of its surroundings, its deep-rooted and historic surf culture, and its importance to the wider community.
It also aims to protect waves and the surfing experience from threats such as harmful coastal development, water quality and pollution, limited coastal access, the impacts of climate change, and a host of other factors that directly or indirectly impact the delicate ecosystems on which waves of quality depend.
It is a well-established hub of surf culture, home to the Museum of British Surfing, the sport’s national governing body Surfing England, and to brands such as Dry Robe and Tiki, all located in Braunton within easy access of the best beaches.
The bid to become a World Surfing Reserve has been led by a Local Stewardship Council including SWEEP researchers from the University of Plymouth alongside organisations such as the North Devon UNESCO Biosphere and Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, environmental groups like Surfers Against Sewage, local community groups, surf clubs, beach businesses and landowners.
Within the bid process, SWEEP academics demonstrated the benefits of gaining status and the opportunities it could potentially unlock for businesses, residents and the local environment. They also assessed the quality of the waves across North Devon’s surf hotspots and what made them some of the highest quality beach breaks in the UK,
Dr Kit Stokes, from SWEEP’s wave forecasting team, was part of the project team. He said:
“We are extremely proud to be part of the UK’s first World Surfing Reserve. It represents a real opportunity to celebrate the unique waves and surfing environment in North Devon. Importantly, it will also enable us to introduce measures that will protect our precious surf breaks using scientific research to help us identify threats to wave and water quality, as well as enhance the abundant natural capital of the region.”
The benefits of World Surfing Reserve status
As part of the bid process Dr Sian Rees and Dr Matthew Ashley, from the University of Plymouth’s Marine Conservation Research Group, and part of the SWEEP marine team, assessed what impact the status could have on the communities of North Devon.
In 2018, they conducted a survey to identify the key needs of the community. It resulted in surfing being placed as the region’s key water sport, and revealed the importance of the connection between participants, the environment, health and well-being.
As a result, the researchers believe WSR status provides a unique opportunity to showcase the region’s surfing hotspots, a forum to discuss the challenges of preserving them, and a means of establishing how those challenges might be overcome. Their hope is that stakeholders with an array of rights and responsibilities – from landowners to town and marine planners, regulators, the water industry and farming – can be united towards a common goal. No such forum – with a remit to protect the waves and the economy – has ever existed in the UK, making North Devon a model for protecting wave breaks across the whole country.
“A World Surfing Reserve offers opportunity to boost the North Devon economy,” the researchers say. “Surfing is increasingly a year-round sport and this designation will serve as a driver for local councils and service providers to commit to the sustainable and respectful growth of the surfing economy. The North Devon WSR will provide the forum to pioneer a place-based approach to the Climate Emergency through supporting a ‘net-zero’ model of economic growth and development with social and environmental gain.”
The mechanics of North Devon’s surfing waves
North Devon has a wide variety of wave types packed into a relatively small stretch of coast, say SWEEP’s Dr Kit Stokes and Dr Tim Scott from the University of Plymouth’s Coastal Processes Research Group. There are gently peeling beach breaks at Saunton Sands, powerful barrelling beach breaks at Croyde, reef breaks at Downend Point, and long point breaks at Lynmouth.
The waves arriving on the North Devon coastline are created by non-tropical low-pressure systems in the Atlantic Ocean, with the most powerful, long-period swells originating from storms off the east coast of America or north coast of Canada. Croyde Beach is renowned for A-frame peaks and heavy barrelling waves at low tide, shaped by the sand bars the waves break over and the unique offshore bathymetry of Oyster Reef, a 6m high seabed feature that focusses wave energy towards the beach.
These A-frames break with increased power due to the fact the wave crests have been focussed onto a single part of the beach, somewhat like using a magnifying glass to focus the sun’s rays. This structural control of wave shape creates well-defined sand bars at low tide, as the wave breaking and currents created by the interacting wave crests mould the seabed. This is a special natural phenomenon leading to the creation of world-class waves.
Natural seabed formations on other parts of the coastline lead to high-performance waves over 500m in length. The seabed deposits from the catastrophic flood that struck Lynton and Lynmouth in 1952 are still impacting wave profiles and creating ideal pointbreak waves with peel angles of between 30-45°.
“The region provides high-quality surfing waves throughout the winter and summer with sheltered and exposed coasts to suit a multitude of conditions,” Dr Stokes and Dr Scott say. “Its waves have often travelled up to 6,000km on their way across the Atlantic to North Devon, growing in size and becoming extremely well sorted into long period (10-20s) ground swell.”
Working alongside the communities of North Devon
The award of World Surfing Reserve status is the latest milestone in SWEEP’s ongoing work with communities in North Devon. Since 2016, SWEEP has played an integral part in the delivery of Defra’s North Devon Marine Pioneer programme, which is central to the UK Government’s 25-Year Environment Plan.
This work has seen the development of the UK’s first marine Natural Capital Asset and Risk Register that demonstrates the potential flows and location of habitats that support a healthy climate and multiple ecosystem service benefits. That work is now being expanded as part of a £1.37million project, led by the North Devon UNESCO Biosphere, which aims to promote green growth and investment in the region.
In tandem with this work, SWEEP has also enabled the development of a new coastal overtopping forecast tool for south west region, including the North Devon coastline. The Operational Wave and Water Level (OWWL) model has been developed by the Coastal Processes Research Group as a more accurate way of forecasting wave overtopping hazards.
Originally using data from the Met Office, but now running from open-source wave model data, this delivers high-resolution inshore wave forecast, while also using detailed profiles of 183 beaches across the South West to predict potential flooding. The model was developed initially for the Environment Agency (EA) who use it to prioritise areas in need of additional support as storms are approaching. They have benefitted from it in a variety of ways, for example to inform a £20m EA real-time coastal forecasting strategy – see our SWEEP Impact Summary for more details. The OWWL model is now being used more widely, by a range of stakeholders, around the coast of South West England and South Wales.
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Want to know more about the SWEEP teams?
SWEEP Marine team –
- Impact summary on the North Devon Marine Pioneer work
- Contributing to a major British Ecological Society report offering the first complete assessment of the potential of nature-based solutions to mitigate climate change and benefit biodiversity in the UK.
- Research supporting a byelaw to protect inshore waters in Sussex
SWEEP Quantitative Habitat mapping team