Nestled within the Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB), the Yealm Estuary is also a Site of Special Scientific Interest, a European Special Area of Conservation and lies within the South Devon Heritage Coast.
The River Yealm rises 430 metres above sea level on the Stall Moor mires of south Dartmoor and makes its 15 mile journey to the sea here. The tidal part of the river, the estuary, reaches up as far as Puslinch, 4 miles inland. The estuary is a drowned river valley or ria, with high sides keeping some of the wind at bay while the sand bar across the mouth of the estuary dampens the incoming waves. This deep and wonderfully picturesque estuary makes a sheltered harbour and habitat.
The cliffs at Warren Point are maintained, managed and owned by the National Trust for access and Nature conservation. Grazing animals including the Dartmoor Pony, keep areas of grassland open and provide a haven for wildflowers, insects and butterflies. The landscape of scrub, woodland and open grassland are important habitats and the area forms part of the Plymouth Shores and Cliffs Site of Special Scientific Interest.
Beneath the water, towards the mouth of the estuary, are large seagrass beds. These submarine meadows are hugely important for wildlife and support an immensely rich but sensitive community. Fish and other sealife lay their eggs within the seagrass. Once those eggs hatch the young fish can hide from predators in the jungle of leaves. Seagrass beds are also a favourite haunt of the seahorse, and of its close cousin the pipefish. Many shellfish and crabs also shelter here. Some such as the stalked jellyfish attach to the seagrass, capturing prey with stinging cells in their tentacles.
Curlew and oystercatchers can be found searching the estuary’s rich mudflats for worms, shellfish and shrimp, while kingfishers and little egrets can be seen fishing in the waters nearby. There are seaweeds of all shapes and sizes, sheltering creatures like crabs and many kinds of shellfish, such as cockle, shrimp, razor shell, and the elegant peppery furrow shell. There are even the descendants of farmed Pacific oysters escaped and gone wild. The estuary is a nursery for sea bass, and beneath the waterline are gardens of sea squirts and sponges, including the vividly named orange peel sponge and breadcrumb sponge.
Looking down onto the estuary from Warren Point, you can see the harbour basin, known locally as the Pool. Noss Mayo and Newton Ferrers are around to the left, on the far side of the water. Both settlements probably started life as so-called ‘cellars’ where the local farmers-cum-fishermen stored their nets. There was a fish market at Noss Mayo as far back as the 13th century and commercial fishing continued here into the 1960s.
Oysters have been farmed here since at least Norman, and possibly even Roman, times and continues to this day. If you visit the information point at Warren Point, you will see a House, just behind you, which once stored the Yealm Coast Guard life saving apparatus. If a boat was in distress, the horse-drawn equipment was dispatched. The Coast Guard fired rockets onto the boat with a line attached. Survivors were then pulled ashore in a ‘breeches buoy’ – a round life ring with canvas trousers (breeches) fixed to the bottom, attached to a line and pulley.
This map shows Warrren Point where an information point is installed for you to soak up the story of theYealm Estuary in person.
© Natural England copyright. Contains Ordnance Survey data © Crown copyright and database right 2012.
This boundary data for the South Devon Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty has been provided by Natural England and used by the South Devon AONB Unit under the Open Government Licence.