Friday, 8 March 2013

River restoration meetings in a hat lifted from Lenin

After a cold dry week during which the wind caused the toughest skin to chafe and flake, the scorched earth policy has been rolled out and reed beds burnt to a cinder. For a few days conditions were perfect and a single dropped match caused a steady burn driven on by a zealous zephyr that ensured much of what stood is burnt. I had a go over on the Itchen but the growth is not as thick and it didn’t make quite as good a job of it, this may be because it has not been burnt off before, dense dry reed beds undoubtedly burn better than those with more sparse growth and it may be that the job will be easier next year for having been done for the first time this year.

The black soon turns green and I can’t emphasise how thick and diverse the re-growth has become on reed beds that we have now been burning off annually for well over decade, like whacking into the willows and maintenance of marginal growth a prolonged management programme really does make a difference to the chalkstream environment.

We currently have more duck on the river and meadows than we have for some while, cold weather normally sees an influx of teal and wigeon but the ducks flitting about this valley are still mostly mallard with the odd bunch of tufties, not many geese or snipe either who can often arrive in numbers when the wind blows cold from the east. Following a dry spell the river has dropped a little although the banks retain a squidge factor of five. The water is clear and weed is starting to grow Trout are keen to feed as are the pike who are preparing to move to the spring holes and ditches to think about spawning as will the grayling who also remain active but will soon switch off and shuffle to the shallows to do their thing. The next month we will scan the skies for winged oddities as it is often at this time we see migrants moving through in their way to nesting grounds, an osprey hung around for a while five years ago, taking a fine fish of about three pounds from the river in front of the fishing hut on my fortieth birthday. At the time, which happened to be an alcohol fuelled birthday lunch, this was attributed to be a bad sign. Runes were subsequently read, juju wood burnt and a totem pole constructed featuring my own features above a carved osprey head, but all came to naught, and a few winters later the totem pole was introduced to the wood burner along with our old kitchen table chairs during a particularly cold snap when the requirement for warmth won over the need to ward away evil avian spirits.

Recent cold weather and the loss of my favourite hat led to a new purchase from the internet, crafted from the finest fleeces of eight week old persian karakul lambs in uptown Ukraine it was offered on ebay and may well have been lifted from Lenin’s tomb. It’s the warmest hat I have ever had which outstrips the fact that it looks a little odd. After initial approval Otis has since taken to walking at least ten yards behind me, as has the lady who sleeps on my left who declined my offer of wearing it in bed for some Russki role play, I was to play the surly diplomat and she the dusky maiden seeking freedom from her life of turnips, cabbage and vodka derived from their peelings. When we first connected up to the internet over ten years, ago one of our opening emails after “welcome to compuserve” included a list of four hundred such women seeking to make a new life away from the Russian Steppes. The email had profiles for each and every one who were keen to offer marriage along with a list of items, attributes and skills that they were able to add to our union, last year when we were struggling to get a plumber to call, in desperation we dug out the list in the hope of a Svetlana skilled in the use of a pipe bender and stilsons, but no joy.

Demolition is well underway on the stable block whose roof I fell through before Christmas. Two days of crash bang wallop and driving at it with a digger has reduced it to dust, well sixteen loads of concrete at the very least.

The first draft of the Test and Itchen Restoration strategy report has now been published online. To recap, the EU’s water Framework Directive requires the SSSI’s of the river’s Test and Itchen to be brought up to scratch, they are currently deemed to be failing and if they are not brought up to the required standard by 2013 fines will be issued from Brussels, or possibly Strasbourg.

The Environment Agency and Natural England subsequently commissioned a highly reputable company to come up with a detailed plan of action. On the company’s website they describe themselves as :

“One of the world’s leading design, engineering and project management consultancies with the breadth and depth of expertise to respond to the most technically challenging and time critical infrastructure projects

The Water Framework Directive has potential to afford these two Hampshire rivers protection against a variety of threats and the results of the two year survey were eagerly awaited. I can only comment on the report for the two stretches of river for which I am responsible, but if it turned up in a pile of marking for the lady who sleeps on my left a line would be drawn through it with “do it again” writ witheringly large in red at the base. It may be that those who assessed this stretch of the Dever were from the “High Protein diet division” because they failed to demonstrate any understanding of how hatches and sluices work or where they are on a map. As expected, the report suggests an alternative method of use for the hatch in front of the house. A few years ago during the opening skirmishes of the restoration strategy I had an entertaining afternoon with the late Tim Holzer, a keen protagonist for throwing open all the hatches on the river. I argued that if the hatch on the house was removed it will undoubtedly improve the hundred yards of man-made stream in front of the house half of which has a concrete bottom but would impact on the mile of main river which is in pretty good shape. We have done what we can with the top two thirds of the man-made stream with woody debris very much to the fore and a plethora of faggots, casting platforms and replanted marginal growth, so the SSSI may have to take the hit of a hundred yards of perched stream, and anyway there has to be an eye to heritage and a seventeenth century mill house and its elaborate workings, the voles can’t conquer all. The survey put the sluice in front of the house on the main river and not on the mill stream, classified the hatch at the top of the mill stream as a weir and fundamentally failed to grasp the machinations of these two split streams and what is achievable with either. The Mill itself does not appear on the list of “in stream” Mill houses on the river despite the current building being in situ for over four hundred years and a mill on site for over a millennium.

On the Itchen the report’s findings were surprising. The short stretch of single bank that I am responsible for is hard piled throughout its length and the EA have installed a gauging station to warn Winchester of impending flood, there is also a substantial fixed feature midstream below the road bridge that deflects flow around the top pool but also holds the water level up by a foot above the bridge. Following the November restoration strategy consultation meeting, I made contact with the EA about the possibility of removing the piling and of a week with a digger re-profiling the bank. Extensive onsite meetings with the EA, Natural England and the magic man with the digger confirmed that this was undoubtedly the way to go, even the hard-nosed man from hydrology conceded to the removal of twenty yards of piling that afforded belt and braces protection to his gauging station, some funding was even secured. The survey conducted twelve months prior to these meetings subsequently declared that there is nothing to report and the current state of this hard piled bank should be conserved and enhanced, the massive structure two yards downstream from the bridge that is having a significant impact on the stream was missed and does not appear on the list of “in stream structures”.

I have only been working on this stretch of the Itchen for a just over a year but on my opening forays down the river I suggested that a few weeks bank work with a digger would pay dividends, a lifetime walking up and down bank of one sort or another suggested that all was not as it should be . It’s expensive work, bank re-profiling and persuading a riparian owner that this is the way to go to benefit his stretch of stream is made all the more difficult following a duff survey that declared everything to be “tickety boo”. Germaine Greer recently wrote an enlightened article on the threat faced by the rivers in the south, which was a quite a surprise from this champion of female emancipation, perhaps she should be given a go at surveying a few stretches of stream and the international company of fine repute return to their more specialised field of high protein diets.

It is only a draft copy and I am sure that common sense will prevail and the mistakes will be corrected, but it doesn’t instil faith in the whole process. I desperately wanted to write something positive about this report, and it may be that all the cock ups occurred on the two stretches for which I am responsible, but for the two bits of bank that I bumble along it is inaccurate at best, inept at worst.

How much is this consultation costing the public purse?

The meeting that followed on from the draft publication was reasonably well attended, and ran through what happens next. Examples where given of what the ideal chlkstream should look like and at one point the leading lady suggested that if anyone needed guidance as to what the ideal is they should take a look of any bridge bordering bank that has been classified “conserve and enhance” and there ye shall find. The stretch of Itchen on which I walk has received this classification and the bridge at the top gives a clear view of the bank so expect a rush on pig iron in the coming months. The survey continues to peddle the myth of the miracle of “woody debris” which has the potential to become the monorail of The Simpsons season 4 episode 12, but for the first time I saw writ in “action to be taken to conserve the chalkstreams” a hint that all wood in the river may not be such a good thing.
You have to know what your about with woody debris, done well in the right spot it can undoubtedly help, done badly in the wrong spot it doesn’t and thousand plus word articles in the Angling Press urging all to fling timber willy-nilly into any river by those who proclaim to know better were irresponsible (I’m sorry I will not let that one go for a long time)

Advice on Willow management was muddled and one riparian owner eloquently highlighted the problems of meeting the different requirement of higher level stewardship schemes and managing the SSSI each of which called for conflicting management plans to be undertaken.
There was however sensible advice on changing angler expectation as to their chalkstream experience with regard to mowing and marginal growth.

We heard from the Environment Agency, Natural England, The Test & Itchen Association and the company of International repute, a complicated enough cabal that will be muddled further by an increased role for The Wild trout Trust. Strong leadership is required to prevent a repeat of “The people’s front of Judea” of Monty Python fame.

Most recognise the need to protect and improve the southern chalkstreams, they have taken a bit of a battering in recent times and need protection from diffuse pollution, over abstraction and much more besides. The Water Framework Directive and the push to improve the condition of SSSI’s promises to do this and should be encouraged, but if fundamental mistakes are made early on in the surveying process and the group charged with implementing the action are seen as a large unwieldy alliance it will fail, and Riparian owners and keepers who in my time have received contradictory advice to both remove fences from river banks and fence river banks, chop down trees and plant trees, received grants for the installation and renovation of hatches and sluices and been asked to remove hatches and sluices, will understandably question whether the advice being given is valid and return to practices of old, both good and bad.

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