Valuing saltmarshes for wellbeing in Wales

In this blog, Erin Roberts introduces her new co-written (with Merryn Thomas, Nick Pidgeon and Karen Henwood) article in Environmental Values, ‘Valuing Nature for Wellbeing: Narratives of Socio-ecological Change in Dynamic Intertidal Landscapes’ (Fast Track August 2020)

Rising sea levels are among the many challenges posed by climate change. Set to change the appearance and function of coastlines around the world, sea level rise poses complex and difficult dilemmas for coastal managers, who must protect lives and property, as well as vulnerable (and oftentimes rare) coastal ecosystems. Among these rare and vulnerable ecosystems are saltmarshes; intertidal wetlands that form in sheltered areas containing mudflats – such as estuaries, spits and inlets, as well as behind sea defences – particularly in middle to high latitudes. Saltmarshes (Morfa halltMorfa heli, or simply Morfain Welsh) are home to a wide range of specialist salt-tolerating vegetation and algae that are well adapted to regular inundation by the tide, as well as meandering channels and creeks that repeatedly empty and fill with the ebb and flow of the water. They are dynamic landscapes that are notoriously difficult to traverse and can be quite dangerous places to be, particularly when the tide comes in. Like many other coastal ecosystems, saltmarshes are in decline globally (Bouma et al. 2014). Attributed to a myriad of causes – including climate change, land reclamation and development, coastal defence, pollution, recreational pressures as well as processes of erosion and deposition – in Britain, the decline outpaces saltmarsh development at such a rate that saltmarshes are considered one of the rarest major habitat types in the country (Bouma et al. 2014; Chatters 2017; McKinley et al. 2020).

Figure 1. Playing on the Laugharne marsh. Photo: ©Merryn Thomas

These fringe ecosystems fulfil a number of key roles at the land-sea interface that contribute to both human and non-human nature, including; providing essential habitat for aquatic and terrestrial species, protection from coastal erosion and surface water flooding, as well as improved water quality and carbon sequestration to name only a few. What is less clearly understood, however, is how saltmarshes matter for the wellbeing of the communities that live near and/or interact with them, however that may be. 

Commonly used in everyday speech to denote feelings of contentedness, health and a good ‘quality of life’, wellbeing is a term that is defined, understood and operationalised in various ways by different interests (Andrews et al. 2014). Within the Social Sciences and Humanities, it has long been recognised that the physical environment plays a significant role in shaping human health and wellbeing (Winchester and McGrath 2017). In these conceptualisations, rather than being something that can be acquired or achieved, wellbeing stems from a web of situated interactions between personal, social, institutional and biophysical processes (Atkinson et al. 2012). Wellbeing is therefore emergent, dynamic and subject to change over time.

Figure 2. Summer spring tide on the Mawddach. Photo: © Jordi Pagès

In our paper, we set out to better understand the cultural meanings, values and experiential benefits at stake when it comes to human wellbeing in the context of two coastal case-sites in west Wales; the Taf in Carmarthenshire, and the Mawddach in Gwynedd. Through the stories told about the respective coastlines and saltmarshes, the paper explores how our participants (N = 26) experienced and understood change within these dynamic landscapes, and what this meant for their wellbeing. Among these stories of change were tales of natural cycles and rhythms, of industrial heritage, and of changes in plant and animal communities as well as missed opportunities; stories that together painted a picture of the hopes and fears that participants had for the future of their little patch of coast/marsh. It’s within these narratives that we find what matters, that is, what is meaningful and worth protecting; insights that we argue are integral to successful decision-making at the land-sea interface.


Andrews, G., S. Chen and S. Myers. 2014. The ‘taking place’ of health and wellbeing: Towards non-representational theory. Social Science & Medicine 108: 210–222

Atkinson, S., S. Fuller and J. Painter. 2012. ‘Wellbeing and place’. In S. Atkinson, S. Fuller and J. Painter (eds), Wellbeing and Place (pp.1–14). Ashgate: Farnham

Bouma, T.J. et al. 2014. ‘Identifying knowledge gaps hampering application of intertidal habitats in coastal protection: Opportunities & steps to take’. Coastal Engineering 87: 147–157

Chatters, C. 2017. Saltmarsh. Bloomsbury Publishing: London

McKinley, E., J.F. Pagès, R.C. Ballinger and N. Beaumont 2020. ‘Forgotten landscapes: Public attitudes and perceptions of coastal saltmarshes’. Ocean & Coastal Management 187.

Winchester, M. and J. McGrath. 2017. ‘Therapeutic landscapes: Anthropological perspectives on health and place’. Medicine Anthropology Theory 4 (1): i–x

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