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North Devon’s coastline is well known for its outstanding landscape, wildlife value and popularity with visitors. But more than that, the undeveloped coastline has been recognised as being either nationally or internationally important; much of it has been designated either Heritage Coast, a Site of Special Scientific Interest, an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty or a Local Nature Reserve. So when the North Devon Heritage Coast Service was launched in 1993, it was a natural progression to persuade people to look further than the cliff edge - to the sea and the marine world within it.
Taking advantage of an English Nature initiative, the North Devon Voluntary Marine Conservation Area (VMCA) was launched in May 1994, with the aim of promoting sustainable use of our coastline and seas for the benefit of all. In addition, it would raise awareness of the value of marine wildlife, encourage enjoyment and understanding, and inform people of the potential of the wider marine environment.
The aim is not to restrict present activities in the area, but to encourage harmonious use between all activities while respecting the local sea and sea wildlife. A simple guide to exploring the rocky shore has been produced and posted along the VMCA, and local user groups are being encouraged to draw up their own codes of conduct.
The area covers a transition of coastline between the south-west open coast and the Bristol Channel, with striking contrasts of lofty cliffs and sheltered coves. Rocky shores, sandy beaches and all grades of shore in between provide a rich variety of habitats and the warm flow of the Gulf Stream supports a great diversity of underwater life. Summer visitors include the Basking Shark, the peculiar-looking Sunfish and occasional schools of dolphins and porpoises, as well as the more common rocky shore species.
Initially the VMCA ran for about 15 miles from Little Hangman in Combe Martin, to Morte Point, and from the cliff base out to the 20 metre depth contour. Since its launch, the VMCA has been well received by the local community, and support is growing as local parish councils and businesses contribute to its work. One indication of this success is the recent extension of the western boundary around Morte Point for three miles to the edge of Woolacombe Sands.
The objectives of the VMCA has since focused more towards marine interpretation and education rather than directly influencing marine activities. The aim is to provide an alternative focus for tourism in the area, with wildlife tourism and the VMCA being high on the agenda for green tourism promotion in North Devon. The area has been a traditional focus for marine wildlife interest, especially during the 19th Century when the Victorian craze for collecting local marine wildlife began in this area, and was popularised by several books being written about it.
Today’s marine interpretation particularly focuses on encouraging visitors and local people alike to explore the seashore for themselves and to manage their activities sustainably. Discussions with the Ilfracombe and District Tourist Association have already provided a positive outlook for the VMCA and its contribution to a healthy tourism trade.
Based at the North Devon Heritage Coast offices, almost all VMCA projects are established in partnership with local attraction and organisations. Mini marine centres have been set up within Ilfracombe Museum, the Braunton Countryside Centre and on Ilfracombe Quay, and others are planned for the coming year. Mobile displays tour other attractions, campsites and hotels to inform visitors of the VMCA; and a programme of events such as guided walks, boat trips and plankton trawls are run throughout the summer - being just some of the ways people can discover more about their local marine wildlife. Displays and interpretation boards have been produced in association with the Heritage Coast Service, the National Trust and the Tarka Project.
A schools programme began this year to encourage teachers to use this valuable educational resource which lies on their doorstep. It runs sessions in the schools themselves, and takes classes on the rocky shores. A partnership has been formed with Devon Wildlife Trust in the production of its education pack. The project also participates in already established events in order to bring marine wildlife to a wider audience. ‘The Sea’ was taken 22 miles inland to the North Devon Show in 1995 and 1996, and rangers can be seen taking guided walks in costume during Ilfracombe’s Victorian Celebrations, and at events during Combe Martin's Carnival Week.
Now two years old, the VMCA is consolidating its strong support as it looks to the future. Research is planned for within the VMCA through the enthusiasm of students and volunteers, and will enable us to provide help ad information to those with an interest in, or studying marine conservation - something that could lead it to develop into a major education and training site for marine conservation and interpretation.
As our support continues and grows, the outlook for the North Devon Voluntary Marine Conservation Area looks bright.