The Exe Estuary is designated as a special protection area (SPA), site of special scientific interest (SSSI) and a wetland of international importance (RAMSAR).

It extends 10 km south from Exeter to the open sea at Dawlish Warren. It includes the waters, foreshore, low-lying land, three saltmarshes, an unusual double spit across the mouth of the estuary and the sand dunes of Dawlish Warren. The mud- and sand-flats support Eelgrass Zostera spp. and Enteromorpha beds. They and contain a wealth of invertebrates including extensive Mussel Mytilus edulis beds, which provide rich feeding habitats for wintering waders and wildfowl.

This important habitat supports internationally important waterbirds.

An illustrative map of the Exe wildlife refuges

Two areas to protect wildlife on the Exe Estuary have been put in place. Known as wildlife refuges, the areas are marked out with yellow ‘special mark’ buoys which have an “X” at the top and the words “Wildlife Refuge” printed on them. Smaller yellow marker buoys are placed in between the ‘special mark’ buoys and have “WR” in black letters printed on them. People are being asked to avoid the areas, all year round at Dawlish Warren National Nature Reserve (NNR) and between 15 September to 31 December at Exmouth Local Nature Reserve (LNR).

At Exmouth LNR, the wildlife refuge protects important feeding areas during low season for a short period of time. The Imperial Recreation Ground slipway can still be used to access the foreshore during this time, although dog walkers are being asked to turn left at the end of the slipway, to avoid the refuge.

At Dawlish Warren NNR, the wildlife refuge protects important wildlife feeding and resting areas all year round. Both refuges will be monitored to understand the effects on wildlife.

These key areas for wildlife were approved by the partnership of three councils surrounding the estuary, known as the South East Devon Habitat Regulations Executive Committee (SEDHREC) in October 2017.

The mild climate and the vast food sources of the Exe mudflats attract tens of thousands of wetland birds, including Avocet, Curlew, Godwit, Dunlin and Brent Geese. On their long migratory journeys from as far away as arctic Siberia, these birds face many challenges and are exhausted when they arrive. Please help us protect them by avoiding the wildlife refuges, as the birds may not survive if they are regularly disturbed.


Produced in partnership with the Exe Estuary Management Partnership, updated codes of conduct provide valuable advice and guidance for all people visiting the Exe Estuary. The codes will encourage safe and responsible behaviour on the Exe, for the benefit of all estuary users. They cover a wide range of uses on and around the Exe Estuary. 

A poster showing where the Exe wildlife refuges are and when they apply.