Our recent ‘Source to Sea’ river clean-up where Andy and James took to their kayaks, along with members of Sudbury Canoe Club, produced a haul of plastic waste that was not unexpected. It is a sad aspect of human behaviour that we can steadily gain a tolerance to that which is plainly unacceptable. The river would have eventually taken most of this plastic to the sea to join the ludicrous amounts already there. I pondered that if society could just change its collective heart and solve this relatively simple problem we could then start a momentum of change and start tackling the web of global woes that seems so overwhelming.
The event also caused us to look a little closer at the river that defines about a third of the Foxearth Meadows boundary. Along its bank here it grades in and out many features: riverine trees and scrub; steep cliff and muddy ‘beaches’; stands of marginal and emergent aquatic plants; bramble thickets and grassland. The river adds a variety of different habitats for the wildlife at Foxearth Meadows but these are not always recognised or appreciated. The fundamental question to ask is “What is a river?” It certainly is far more than a means of sluicing water from the landscape.
The 42 mile long River Stour rises on Wratting Common near Weston Colville in eastern Cambridgeshire and flows through part of Suffolk before becoming the county boundary with Essex. I am indebted to Vernon and Joan Clarke’s article The Stour From Source To Sea, And Tributaries published by The Foxearth & District Local History Society (go to https://www.foxearth.org.uk/StourFromSourceToSea.html) for expanding my meagre knowledge of the river which is fundamental to the existence and ecology of Foxearth Meadows.
I have received letters informing me of the parlous state of the river on our stretch. It is “stagnant”, I am told, “clogged up”, “overgrown”, “the swans cannot get through the reeds” and that our cattle are ruining the water quality. I have met similar sentiments before when I lived in Stoke-on-Trent where some folk thought that the River Trent was dying because of the burgeoning River Crowfoot thriving in the flow. In fact this, and the clouds of Banded Demoiselles, was evidence that the river was alive once again following more than a century’s worth of sewage and industrial effluent that had reduced it to near lifelessness.
The Stour may not have suffered as grievously as the Trent but the commonly held view that we must ‘manage’ rivers remains. We have allowed the river to fill with Club-rush, Reedmace and Bur-reed which gives structure resulting in narrower faster sections, slower flows through emergent vegetation, shallow ‘riffles’ over a stony bottom and backwaters provided almost static pools. The swans still swim the river (although I did some minor trimming to allow passage of our afore-mentioned kayaks!) and the increased complexity benefits fish and aquatic invertebrate life. When I ventured into the water with my net the vegetation stands were where I would fill my net with large numbers of Banded Demoiselle larvae demonstrating to me the efficacy of our minimal intervention.
I dare say that if the Victorian farmers could see the extensive wet woodland on the Glemsford bank which has grown up to replace centuries of open meadows, following the pre-war gravel extraction, they would be horrified. We now look across to Glemsford Pits and delight in an unintentional re-wilding project before the concept was even thought of. We are now re-wilding the river.
An effect of allowing rivers to do what they want is that they will also insist on going where they want. Standing vegetation does deflect flow and as I watch our banks being scoured and gradually tumbling into the water there is a need for some ‘soft engineering’. This will include the pinning of brash using wooden posts, woven willow spiling or planting along the bank to protect it. Far from being detrimental to wildlife this will create more refuges and breeding habitat.
We will continue to employ a sensitive approach to our precious river. I long to see increased fish populations and the return of water voles but for now the summer flurry of Banded Demoiselles, Reed Warblers singing and nesting in the club-rush stands, the urgent piping and iridescent blue flash of the Kingfisher and the river’s quiet beauty and peace will suffice. That and no plastic waste.
Mark Prina, Reserve Manager of Foxearth Meadows