South Devon National Landscape
Follaton House, Plymouth Road,
Totnes TQ9 5NE


Tel: 01803 229330


Wildlife of the Salcombe-Kingsbridge Estuary

The Salcombe-Kingsbridge Estuary is almost an entirely marine system with no real river flowing through it and the little freshwater input comes from catchment runoff and small streams. The estuary supports some rare and unique habitats and species which has led to its designation as a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and a Local Nature Reserve (LNR).


The lower estuary is partially cut off from the open sea by an underwater sand bar and characterised by rocks and sandy bays. The upper regions of the Salcombe-Kingsbridge Estuary consist of mostly intertidal mudflats where semi-sheltered sediments support incredibly rich faunas including tube living and burrowing worms, bivalves and anemones.


Mudflats are extremely important habitats within the estuary providing feeding grounds to both birds and fish and play a large role in supporting estuarine systems.


The lower shores of the Salcombe-Kingsbridge Estuary consists of sand and mud which support rich communities of burrowing fauna and is colonized in places by rare and important eelgrass beds (Zostera marina).


The water quality and the eelgrass beds provide ideal conditions for one of the UK’s rarities, the seahorse. The Salcombe-Kingsbridge Estuary is home to at least one of two British species of seahorse and is considered a hot spot for seahorses on the south coast.


Eelgrass also helps to shore up the loose estuarine sediment and provides important nursery habitats for local fish populations.


Eelgrass is a very sensitive to boat and propeller damage so please always try to avoid these areas and if you are at all likely to damage eelgrass with your engine, please stop and use your oars instead.


The estuary also provides ideal conditions for the fanshell (Atrina fragilis) which is one of the UK’s most threatened species.


Estuaries are hugely productive ecosystems and provide important feeding and nesting grounds for a wide variety of bird life.


Cormorants, Mute Swan, Mallard and Shelduck inhabit the creeks of the Salcombe-Kingsbridge Estuary and over winter Great Crested and Little Grebes along with Goldeneye arrive at the estuary. Herring Gull and Black-Headed Gull inhabit the lower shores and Gannets can be seen diving for fish beyond the sand bar at the mouth of the estuary.


The coastal paths either side of the mouth of the estuary make for perfect vantage points to see these impressive animals.


The best time to see and hear the vast array of bird life in the estuary is when the tide is out and the expansive mud flats are exposed in the upper estuary. During this time you will be likely to see Curlew, Grey Heron and Little Egrets.


Many migrant waders also use the estuary as a refuelling stop on a long migration route, gaining lost weight before continuing on their journey.

Large marine animals

Larger animals, including dolphins, seals and Basking Sharks, are not uncommon within the estuary as it can provide rich foraging grounds. The narrow shallow nature of the channel requires that we treat them with extra care.


These animals are best watched from the shore, but when seen from a boat they should be given as much room as possible and navigate with care; slowing down and carrying out manoeuvres in a smooth gentle manner.

Marine animals code of conduct

Please be aware that the harassment of some of these animals is a crime so please follow the marine animals code of conduct below:

  • Always let them decide what happens.
  • Keep your distance, never closer than 100m.
  • Never drive head on, move between, scatter or separate groups of animals. If unsure, stop and put the engine in neutral.
  • Take special care with mothers and young.
  • Avoid repeated changes in direction or speed. Maintain a slow ‘no wake’ speed. If animals keep heading away, your activity is distressing them, slowly leave.
  • Never dispose of any rubbish, litter or contaminants at sea.


Further information can be found in the Salcombe Harbour Guide.

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