Coastal saltmarshes and saline reedbeds

Sheltered muddy areas, at the top of the shore, where salt-tolerant flowering plants grow

Coastal Saltmarsh © JNCC

Saltmarshes link the land and sea, and they are found above the muddy shores of sheltered estuaries and inlets.  The flowering plants that comprise them are very specialised, as only a few types can tolerate the salty conditions.  Saltmarshes may die back in winter, as the temperature falls and storms batter the shore, but they will expand again during the summer.

Saltmarshes form a natural coastal defence because they trap and stabilise sediments and also dampen the effects of waves.  They are important for wading birds and wildfowl, which take refuge there when the tide covers the mudflats in which they feed. The life on and beneath the saltmarsh plants includes an abundance of marine worms, shrimp-like creatures and tiny snails.

Reedbeds are also found where the shore meets dry land, and grow in salty lagoons.  They are again important for birdlife and are home to nationally rare species including bitterns, cranes, reed warblers and bearded tits.  Water voles eat young reed shoots as their main diet for much of the year. 

Saltmarshes and reedbeds are at risk from land reclamation or drainage for agriculture or coastal development, although large scale reclamation is now rare.  Saltmarshes may also be ‘squeezed out’ in areas where their landward retreat in response to erosion or rising sea levels is prevented by the presence of roads or buildings.   They are also damaged by grazing, encroachment of hardy land plants, pollution and other changes to water quality.

For the official habitat definition please see the documents listed below.


European distribution

In Britain, saltmarshes and reedbeds are found around the coast in estuaries and other sheltered marine inlets. Saltmarshes are found from the Arctic region to southern Europe and beyond.

Saline Reedbeds Fact


Official habitat definition

EUNIS habitat A2.5 Coastal saltmarshes and saline reedbeds


Conservation status/need

  • Ramsar Convention
  • Listed on Annex I of the Habitats Directive
  • Protected under the Birds Directive
  • An important feature in estuary Sites of Special Scientific Interest, under the UK Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981
  • This is a UK BAP Priority Habitat (BAP habitats are now Habitats of Principal Importance/Priority Habitats).


Further information

JNCC Marine Habitat Classification - Saltmarsh

JNCC Marine Habitat Classification - Reed Beds

Marine Life Information Network - Saltmarsh

Marine Life Information Network - Reed Beds

JNCC - UK BAP Priority Species and Habitats

UK Biodiversity Action Plan; Priority Habitat Descriptions. BRIG (ed. Ant Maddock) 2008 (updated July 2010)

JNCC EUNIS habitat correlations table