The River Dart rises 550 metres above sea level on the high mires of north Dartmoor and makes its 52 mile journey to the sea passing through Dartmeet, Buckfastleigh and Totnes, then Dartmouth and Kingswear at the estuary mouth.
The estuary of the Dart is tidal up as far as the weir at Totnes, the bridging point 12 miles upriver. Like most other estuaries of the South West, the Dart estuary is ria formed.
The original deep river valley being inundated by later sea level rise, with the tide flooding in to create the characteristic deep waters and steep sided banks of a ria.
The Dart Estuary is part of the South Devon Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) and lies within the South Devon Heritage Coast.
Estuaries, with their varied habitats and high productivity, support a wide range of plant, seaweed and animal life.
The Dart transforms from an almost entirely freshwater system in its upper limits to a largely marine habitat at its mouth, and along the way has developed some characteristically important habitats, such as saltmarsh and reed beds.
The Dart estuary supports a wide variety of wildlife including birds, fish, crabs, shellfish, grey seals, otters and the occasional dolphin. Not to mention the extremely important worms, snails and bacteria on which many other species depend.
Caring for the estuary
The Dart estuary sits in a steep-sided river valley with a large catchment area making it very vulnerable to pollution. The Dart estuary is affected by both point source pollution (has a traceable source into the estuary) and diffuse pollution (comes from the land or atmosphere).
Pollutants can be highly toxic killing wildlife within the Dart. They can also reduce the oxygen content and water quality of the estuary potentially leading to ‘anoxic dead zones’. It is important that we understand how our actions can affect the estuary and what we can do to prevent them.
- Dispose of all waste carefully, recycling as much as possible.
- Try using low phosphate, environmentally degradable cleaning products.
- When changing oil and refuelling cars be careful not to spill any, as it will end up in the estuary downstream.
Further information regarding this issue and additional preventative actions are available to view on the dedicated Dart Estuary Pollution page of our website.
Our coast and estuaries play an important role in the binding of the world’s biological carbon (or green carbon), with more than half being captured by marine living organisms (hence it is called blue carbon).
With such an important carbon fixing resource on our doorstep, it is important that we restore and maintain healthy marine ecosystems. For further details please read the full blue carbon report.
- On foot: The Dart Valley Trail is a great way to explore the estuary. A leaflet is available for sale from Tourist Information Centres or free from the walks page.
- By river cruiser: River boats run between Totnes and Dartmouth, between Dartmouth town and Dartmouth castle, and between Dartmouth and Greenway.
- Ferry crossings: Both passenger and vehicle ferries operate year-round services crossing between Dartmouth and Kingswear. There is a small passenger ferry crossing between Dittisham and Greenway.
Estuary conservation and management
An estuaries management plan for all five South Devon estuaries has been published covering the eight year period 2016-2024 and is available to download at the top right of this page.