The sun sets on the North Devon coast (Credit: Gordon Dryburgh)

The sun sets on the North Devon coast (Credit: Gordon Dryburgh)

The University of Plymouth’s world-leading marine and coastal research has helped North Devon secure World Surfing Reserve status.

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 North Devon's 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.

North Devon is the first region in the UK to gain the status, joining globally-renowned surfing locations in Australia, California, Portugal and South America.

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 researchers from the University 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, academics from the University 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 the factors that made them some of the highest quality beach breaks in the UK.

Dr Kit Stokes, from the University’s Coastal Processes Research Group, was part of the project team. He said:

“The whole team at the University of Plymouth 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 and enhance the abundant natural capital of the region.”

Lynmouth_Credit - Ester Spears
Lynmouth (Credit: Ester Spears)
Saunton - Credit - Gordon Dryburgh
Saunton (Credit: Gordon Dryburgh)
Putsburough - Credit - Rob Tibbles
Putsburough (Credit: Rob Tibbles)

The benefits of World Surfing Reserve status

As part of the bid process Dr Sian Rees and Dr Matthew Ashley, from the University’s Marine Conservation Research Group, assessed what impact the status could have on the communities of North Devon.
Through the South West Partnership for Environment and Economic Prosperity (SWEEP) programme, they conducted a survey in 2018 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.
Waves roll onto the beach in Woolacombe (Credit: Gordon Dryburgh)
Waves roll onto the beach in Woolacombe (Credit: Gordon Dryburgh)
“A World Surfing Reserve offers opportunity to boost the North Devon economy. 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 Dr Kit Stokes and Dr Tim Scott from the University’s Coastal Processes Research Group (CPRG).
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 the 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 focuses 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 waves 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. 
Surfing in North Devon. Photo Credit N _ M Drotography
Surfing in North Devon (Credit: N and M Drotography)
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°. Dr Stokes and Dr Scott say:
“The region provides high-quality surfing waves throughout the winter and summer with sheltered and exposed coasts to suit a multitude of conditions. 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.”
Surfer - Credit - Rob Tibbles
Credit: Rob Tibbles
Surfing North Devon. 
Credit: N and M Drotography

Working alongside the communities of North Devon

The award of World Surfing Reserve status is the latest milestone in the University’s ongoing work with communities in North Devon.

Since 2016, Dr Rees and Dr Ashley have been involved in Defra’s North Devon Marine Pioneer programme, which is central to the UK Government’s 25-Year Environment Plan.

This work, funded through the SWEEP project, has seen them develop the UK’s first marine Natural Capital Asset Register to demonstrate 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 £1.37 million project, led by the North Devon UNESCO Biosphere, which aims to promote green growth and investment in the region.

In tandem with this work, the SWEEP project has also enabled the development of a new coastal overtopping forecast tool for 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.

It takes data from the Met Office and refines it to provide a high-resolution inshore wave forecast, while also using detailed profiles of 183 beaches across the South West to predict potential flooding.

The model has been used by the Environment Agency to identify areas in need of additional support as storms are approaching, while its advance forecasts are also now made available to the public.

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