The Looe estuary extends upstream from the harbour into the valleys of the West and East Looe rivers with approximate tidal limits at Watergate and Sandplace respectively. It is an example of a Ria, or drowned river valley (like most estuaries in the SW) and was formed about 12,000 years ago after the last glaciation as sea levels rose. However, compared to most other estuaries in the SW, Looe estuary is relatively unusual in that it dries almost completely at low tide, with only a residual riverine flow.
Globally, estuaries are important to mankind: They provide sheltered harbours and habitation and many have been inhabited since prehistory. More recently, estuaries were a focus during the Industrial Revolution where harbour expansion and development provided ready transport to inland regions. Looe is no exception, albeit on a smaller scale, and enabled pre-railway transport of goods between the coast and the mining areas of the Herodsfoot/Caradon area. Indeed much of the Looe estuaries industrial heritage can be seen both in the harbour and the various small quays constructed in the upper reaches (Best seen on a walk to Watergate via Kilminorth Woods, or take the Looe Valley Line train from Looe to Sandplace).
Physically, estuaries represent the mixing zone between fresh water and the sea, and are therefore important for a range of natural physical and chemical processes, such as sedimentation and the precipitation of minerals.
Ecologically too, estuaries are extremely important: With their twice daily tidal excursions, reduced salinity and wide seasonal temperature variations, estuaries are extreme environments in which to live. However, many species have evolved to live only within estuaries. Others spend only part of their life-cycle in estuaries, which represent vital nursery areas for several commercially important species of fish.
Surrounded by wooded valleys and receiving drainage from inland areas the Looe estuary is naturally rich in nutrients and supports a rich flora and fauna in the mudflats, sandbanks and low-water channels. These in turn provide food for the more obvious species including many wading birds and estuarine fish such as Bass, Grey Mullet and Flounder. However, equally important, yet unseen is the role that this estuarine community plays in decay and natural recycling of nutrients.
It is, for these diverse physical, chemical and biological functions that estuaries are so important to the natural world, yet susceptible to influence from mankind’s activities. For this reason several estuarine habitats (mudflats, saltmarsh and estuarine rocky shores) together with many estuarine species have been included for statutory protection through the EU Habitats Directive (one of the cornerstones of Europe’s nature conservation policy).
The Looe Marine Conservation Group encourages appreciation and study of the Looe estuary through biological surveys, monitoring, guided walks and talks and by raising awareness of the importance of our estuary.
For information & tips on bird-watching along the estuary, visit the Things To Do section.