East Head Aerial by Matt Simmons

Background Information

East Head is an important sand and shingle spit at the entrance to Chichester Harbour. It was formed by the process of longshore drift, but its present shape and direction have been affected by sea defences that have been interrupting this process for nearly 200 years.

It is used for recreation by many thousands of walkers and tourists. East Head is a Site of Special Scientific Interest and has an international designation as a Ramsar Site because of its importance for coastal birds. The sand dune habitat is valuable to the Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. The spit gives some protection to the rest of the harbour from erosion and flooding.

East Head is owned and managed by the National Trust and as it is a SSSI, Natural England also play an important role in its management.

The Conservancy are an interested party as it is our role to maintain navigation in Chichester Harbour. If the hinge is breached it may have a significant impact on the flow of water through the harbour entrance therefore affecting the deep water channels and ultimately the use of the harbour for navigation and marine related businesses.


In 1786, the spit pointed across the entrance of the Harbour towards Hayling Island. Since then, its position has moved and it now points north into the Harbour. During the 1960's and 1970's the sea breached the narrow Hinge.

A large part of the spit was submerged in seawater that destroyed much of the vegetation. The sand dunes had to be replenished with the planting of Marram Grass and other dune plants.

In the 1980's and 1990's, there was severe erosion to the west/sea facing side of the spit. In 2005, a 'rock berm' was put on the inside of the narrow Hinge area to try and secure the spit to the mainland and to prevent a channel forming if the sea should break through again. In October 2004, the narrowest section linking the spit to the mainland was completely eroded away by the sea. During the summer of 2005, and again in 2009, a huge quantity of sand was transported from the northern tip and a huge bank built over the top of the surviving rock berm. This was planted with Marram Grass.

In 2008, a coastal defence strategy was agreed for East Head. The strategy, called 'Adaptive Management' aims to maintain East Head for future generations and stakeholders. The Adaptive Management Plan will monitor the spit but will not try to lock it into its current size, shape or orientation.


1. These gabions are sea defences that protect the narrow hinge from erosion.

2a. In October 2004, the narrowest part of East Head that connected it to the mainland was very quickly eroded away by the sea during some very high tides.

2b. Although all the sand and Marram Grass quickly disappeared, the rock berm remained. It helped to prevent the sea eroding a channel through to the saltmarsh.

2 C

2c. In June 2005, 15,000 cubic metres of sand were transported from the northern tip of East Head to the eroded gap. A huge bank of sand was built over the area of the rock berm. Marram Grass was planted on the bank to help stabilise it.

3. The western face of East Head faces the open sea. The dunes are rapidly eroding away. Sometimes the sand on the existing dunes landslides. This speeds up the erosion and can also be dangerous.

4. When Marram Grass roots are exposed they can no longer take up fresh water to feed the plant. The Marram Grass begins to die back and the sand erodes away more quickly. Look carefully at the way the Marram Grass roots are blown by the wind and cause erosion of the dunes by rubbing.

5. The Marram Grass in this picture is still very healthy.

6. This area has been roped off to discourage people from walking on it. For several years ground-nesting birds called Ringed Plover have been laying their eggs here. The eggs are camouflaged by the pebbles and very easily trodden on.

7. Sea Knotgrass is a nationally rare plant that grows on vegetated shingle. It can survive with hardly any soil or fresh water.

8. New sand dunes can form very quickly. When sand is blown by the wind it gets caught on any obstruction in its path. The Marram Grass that this sand is building up round will send more shoots up through the top, and roots deep down into the water table.

9. Water collects in the middle low-lying area of the dunes. This is called the dune slack. The darker coloured plants are reeds. The area is also colonised with mosses and lichens.

10. On the sheltered side of East Head, the vegetation becomes more stable. It is the natural ‘succession’ of sand dunes to become scrubland.

11. Snow Hill Creek is the area of saltmarsh that lies on the sheltered side of East Head. Common Sea Lavender and Lax-flowered Sea Lavender grow on this saltmarsh.

12. Sea Holly grows in several places on East Head. It is easy to find the patches growing on the Hinge.