by James Carr
The evolution of our rivers has been influenced by climate, geology and wildlife, and, in recent centuries, they have been considerably altered by human activities.
Over 20 years ago the UK government raised concerns about the state of rivers across the European Union, and from these concerns the Water Framework Directive was developed. This has now been adopted in UK law. The regulations highlight issues with water bodies and set targets to improve their condition.
Form and flow
The river at Foxearth Meadows is rather lovely and makes a good example to illustrate some of these issues. It’s a complex habitat with a natural meandering planform through bankside trees.
There is gradient at the upstream end from the old mill channels (under the road there is the former mill channel and the old bypass route.). At Domesday (1086) thousands of watermills were recorded which were primitive structures later upgraded over the centuries as technology advanced. The artificial mill impoundment led to a fast release of water cleaning out fine sediment downstream. There is still a healthy flow of oxygenated water where fish spawn in the spring in the gravel bed. Entering Foxearth Meadows the flow energy slows and halfway down the reserve the next impoundment downstream (at the old industrial mill at Liston) is having its impact, holding water back in a long deeper section. The bottom end is different again where the Victorians dug a new cut under their railway bridge. This section is less oxygenated, over deepened and widened beyond its natural width and more stagnant. It looks impressive in size, formed of a compromise of river uses with the impounded water now backed up filling the Glemsford Pits SSSI.
Vegetation and wildlife
Healthy rivers need trees to shade and retain open water with a balance of water weed and reeds. With Climate Change treeless rivers become congested with algae and weed growth and we lose the combination of dappled shade and reflections. Where reeds accumulate and slow the flow sediment drops out. A silty and reedy impounded channel becomes more like a pond habitat and is less able to provide a home for formerly widespread river species.
Even when impounded by watermills, millers ran the flow downstream each working day. The more solid fixed concrete and steel weirs of today risk turning rivers into a series of poorly connected ponds with less wildlife. Some of our native river fish are now struggling. Brown trout require cool flowing water and eels need to pass down our impounded rivers to get out to breed in the Sargasso Sea 3,000 miles away before the young elvers come back to try to climb past our weirs and barriers again to head upstream to live another generation in our rivers. We want to hear streams riffling over gravels and allow water to flow more freely again with the natural gradient.
The Stour at Foxearth Meadows has a healthy mix of riverside trees, shrubs, marginal and in-channel plants. A good range of fish species breed here. After heavy rain, water floods across its historic floodplain refreshing the low-lying habitat and ponds. It remains dynamic and intimately connected with its riparian landscape.
Water Supply and uses
East Anglia is short of water for public supply and agriculture. Groundwater abstraction probably reduces surface flow in the river Stour. Water quality could be better with our various long-term impacts: a millennium of water mills, railways from 1850 onwards, land drainage, pesticides, fertiliser run off from field drains, not forgetting what we all produce: sewage and wastewater. We expect so much from our natural resources we shouldn’t be surprised that nationally all our rivers are impacted by our modern lives. Not one scores as good overall in the water body quality elements of the Water Framework Directive standards. We need to clean up our act and learn to do better. Our sewage treatment works need to be upgraded with timely investment. Fertiliser can be directed better and more sustainably onto crops. Many say that we need a national grid of water supply. In the 1960s the Ely Ouse Transfer Scheme was conceived to move water from the Fens down to supply Essex. Local Essex rivers were used to transfer the Ouse water southwards. Water released from a pipeline entering the upper Stour at Great Bradley flows downstream providing water for abstraction by water companies and farmers.
There is understandable criticism of the lack of progress towards good status for our rivers, but each section of river has its own complex legacy of centuries of human impacts to weigh up and work with.
Taking care of the local riparian habitat at Foxearth Meadows is key to remind us how precious and special river corridors are and how when we cherish them, they can be rehabilitated. Keith Morris set about blocking the old land drains and digging out ponds on the reserve when he purchased it. He wanted to make it significantly different from the surrounding depleted East Anglian landscape and welcome back many native species of wildlife to reclaim it. We need to inspire each other until we can restore some of our wonderful natural river valleys to be the best they can as a win-win for us all. There is no one easy fix and it will be a piecemeal process with compromises along the way, but we’ve picked up the pieces and by working together we need to put as many in place as we can. We can’t create a pristine environment, but we can learn to improve and enhance what we have been given to work with.
This article was written by James Carr for the Spring 2023 Foxearth Meadows news and prayer letter. James works for the Environment Agency as a Biodiversity Officer and is currently on assignment as Catchment Coordinator for Suffolk in the Environment Programme Team. Its aim is to improve rivers and other waterbodies to help deliver the Water Framework Directive and other environmental enhancements. James serves on our Foxearth Meadows Steering Group.
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