Rewilding the River: Bring nature back to our floodplains

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The rush of air over my head is just about audible as the scythe-like shape of a hobby snatches its dragonfly target some six feet above ground before arcing, swift as an arrow, upwards and effortlessly transferring the prey from talon to beak mid-flight.

In the distance, wedding bells meld into the high-pitched chorus of gulls and lapwings down on the lagoons, and the sight of the Norman church tower is just visible over the tangle of willows and rustling reeds.

This is Fishlake Meadows, a roughly 270-acre expanse of wetland just north of my hometown of Romsey in Hampshire.

It served as one of two ‘local patches’ in my teenage and young adult life, but not just for bird-watching (with 160 species recorded on site and regular ospreys stopping over every summer). It’s where I implemented my first solo mammal survey over several years, gathering data on the status of otters, water voles and other small mammals that was published in a final report this summer. And it is a mecca for invertebrates, an outdoor classroom for getting to grips with butterflies, grasshoppers, crickets and dragonflies.

Many more local naturalists treasure this little Arcadia on the edge of a market town, and soon I am sure it will gain an even wider appreciation, now it has been taken under the wing of Hampshire & Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust last month as their newest nature reserve.

But perhaps what’s most interesting about this site is that it didn’t come about through any strategized management plans, but through a relatively rare occurrence in Britain – land abandonment, allowing a passive rewilding through lack of human interference.

The meadows were farmland for generations, and while flooding was commonplace, pumps prevented wild animal and plant life from completely reclaiming them. By the 1980s however, these proved too costly to operate, and they were switched off for the last time. The resultant reedbeds, lagoons, rough grassland and sallow scrub you see today is barely recognisable from the land it once was, and only the root-submerged dead poplars standing in neat field boundary lines, and the odd stone bridge over the swampy ditches, give clues to its agricultural past.

In fact, standing in Fishlake is a window into a long-gone era, which holds huge potential for an equally enticing future.

 

What have the Romans ever done for us?

 The site is essentially a Mesolithic floodplain – what all of our river valleys would have been like before we started re-shaping the land to our wishes.

Go back 2,000 years, and the River Test Valley that these meadows sit within would have been a phenomenally wildlife-rich wetland. A shifting picture of habitats from open water, to reeds and wet scrub, to dark and foreboding carrs (wet woodland) of willow and alder, brimming with abundant birdlife. Some familiar, like mallards and kingfishers, but the whooping serenades of cranes and the huge Dalmatian pelicans flying overhead perhaps more unexpected.

The land would be gardened by the natural ebb of winter floods, and the grazing efforts of gardeners that wouldn’t require a pay cheque: wild boar, deer, aurochs – a wild, now-extinct ox 6-foot high at the shoulder – and most notably beavers, whose dams in the smaller catchments running down the hills would extend these wetland sanctuaries deeper into the landscape.

Even with large rivers such as the Severn and Thames, we don’t tend to think their catchment extends beyond the main channel itself. In reality, much of this is the result of vast land drainage and canalisation that has been occurring continuously in Britain from the moment the Romans and arrived and started digging canals through the fens of Norfolk. As rivers and their floodplains were dredged, re-routed and drained, over time much of the ecological complexity was eroded away.

Take a look at the screen-cap below; with Fishlake immediately north of Romsey and the actual River Test to the right of the town. The fields on either side of the river are on flat ground much like Fishlake, but the river itself has long being engineered to ensure these remain dry through much of the year. Compare this with the variety you see in the meadows not far away.

Meadows Map

Flooding and a new nature

Sitting snugly within the Test Valley, Romsey and other settlements within the river’s catchment are prone to floods in the winter that are getting more frequent.

The most dramatic of recent years in 2014 saw Fishlake completely submerged under at least six feet of water. Although enough flooding occurred to give the local press its biggest event of the year, it could have been a lot worse had Fishlake, with all its ecological complexity, not been there to soak it up. How much more money in flood protection could we save if there were more Mesolithic floodplains allowed to re-gain a footing across the catchment?

This idea of natural flood management is increasingly in vogue, and even the government seem keen to an extent. Meanwhile, a report published earlier this year stated that 90% of Britain’s floodplains aren’t currently suitable for flood mitigation, making a point that too much intensive farming and not enough natural vegetation is curbing this ecosystem service.

Could Fishlake be a useful model of an alternative land use for many of these floodplains? The fact that it turned into what it is today without a single pound or action plan being passed suggests that actually getting there might not be too complicated – the question is whether we, or rather the landowners and communities, want it to happen.

With Brexit underway, there may in fact be a route towards reaching this goal. All clouds have silver linings after all. A lot of the talk about what to do when Common Agricultural Policy subsides are no longer available has turned surprisingly promising for environmentalists. Rather than giving more money to those with most land taken into production, it looks like we’ll be headed for a system where more is granted to those who give land back to nature – such as in carbon storage, flood protection and wildlife conservation.

This is all stuff I have heard personally from farmers, and has been reported in the media as a chief policy of new environment secretary Michael Gove. Given previous track records, conservationists are watching this with the cautious optimism. But the fervour with which this message is resonating is very promising.

It would give farmers and landowners an economic incentive for creating more Fishlake Meadows-type wild floodplains where this is possible. Even if only parts of the catchment went this way, as would likely be practical, the stabilisation provided by the novel plant communities could make a huge difference, while the main river banks & channels could act as a corridors linking such areas together for wildlife.

Imagine if every town had their own wild floodplain landscape directly upstream of them, as is the case with Romsey and Fishlake Meadows (along with Winchester’s Winnall Moors). Not only would you be providing a flood relief buffer, but a place where people could reconnect with nature right on their doorstep. And I mean real nature.

Return of the wild

To get an idea of how much wetland we have lost, and what we could regain, we only have to look at our water birds. This year was the first year on record of a black-crowned night heron pair breeding in the Somerset Levels. What this article’s headline doesn’t recognise, is that these are not, in all likelihood, the first ever breeding pair. Bones of this bird have been found in Britain dating to Roman times and the 16th/17th century, while a strong case has been made for them being the ‘brues’ commonly found in medieval banquets (Yalden & Albarella 2009).

The spoonbill is just one former breeder coming back – this breeding bird photographed in Norfolk in 2012.

Anecdotal accounts speak of volumes of birds all but forgotten nowadays. Black terns are an occasional visitor that get birders’ hearts racing when one shows up at an RSPB reserve. Yet in Norfolk in 1769, they were said to nest in “vast flocks [that] almost deafen one with their clamours” (Holloway 2010).

The loss of wetlands, from the beginnings of agriculture to the post-war land intensification, would have likely exacerbated the effect of over-exploitation of wildlife. Dalmatian pelican bones have been found in Bronze Age middens with dents that implicate being cut by tools. The aforementioned medieval banquets would have consumed huge numbers of cranes, storks, ducks and waders. And by the 19th century, egg collectors help put the nail in the coffin of breeding black terns, while persecution to protect fish stocks wiped out the ospreys and white-tailed eagles.

Yet as soon as we started recreating some of these lost habitats for conservation purposes at the turn of the century, many birds have bounced back. The return of bitterns is perhaps the most famous story, and with legal protection enforced, the marsh harrier swiftly reclaimed the reedbeds. Night herons follow a long line of egrets (little, cattle and great white), purple herons, spoonbills and little bitterns as birds that have bred for the ‘first time’ in recent years. A warming climate could be one factor, or is it just the fact we’ve given them what they need to thrive again?

Floodplain restoration across the UK could help these and more species recolonize former haunts, perhaps some day approaching an abundance one would expect of the Danube delta in Eastern Europe. Some may require more direct action to re-establish. While all birds can theoretically recolonize naturally, this is likely to be an incredibly slow process with those that return to their hatching place to breed, such as ospreys and white storks.

By enabling reintroduction projects in areas of suitable habitat, this would be a fantastic opportunity for engaging the wider public in the amazing things we have lost from our countryside, as well as speeding up the re-establishment process (as indeed is already happening with these two species at Poole Harbour and Knepp). The Dalmatian pelican that toured Cornwall last year became a minor celebrity – imagine what releasing more of these birds to the Somerset Levels could do for engaging people in the magic of nature?

Our ancient wild floodplains would have been dynamic ecosystems of shifting habitat mosaics, both from physical processes and biological ones. Large herbivores, primarily in the form of beavers and aurochs would’ve helped shape the swamp. The reintroduction of beavers to Britain is by now well known, and releasing more of these animals would create increasingly complex water systems and engineer a varied vegetation community (Law et al 2017). Many nature reserve managers already use domestic cattle to graze wetlands in order to maintain specific habitats, acting as proxies for aurochs which archaeological evidence suggests were common in fenland-type habitats (Lynch et al 2008).

There is debate on the necessity of this, which I will not dwell on here. Perhaps more extensive use of a carefully controlled number of animals – such as heck cattle, a breed supposedly close to its extinct ancestor – would provide a more varied diversity of habitat from the heavy trampling, grazing and browsing, without creating a grass monoculture due to an overload of an animals in a predator-free zone. Could the landowners that have donated land to floodplain restoration even make some extra money off the organic beef?

And if any brave maverick would like to fence in a couple of that other lost marshland herbivore, the moose, to see what happens, I’m all ears.

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The moose – future resident of rewilded, expansive floodplains?

 The talk of ‘rewilding’ is undoubtedly fashionable at the moment, but while much of it seems to focus on the possibilities in the uplands, there is a huge, untapped opportunity within many of our lowland floodplains. They tick many of the boxes that proponents often put forward – home to an abundance of restored wildlife that could be natural-process lead, a vast sponge to curb the cost and tragedy of flood damage, and immediate access to nature for those who aren’t lucky enough to live in remote corners of the country.

I‘ll be following the development of Fishlake Meadows Nature Reserve with interest. For years, this site has shown me you can discover the thrill of wild, near-untamed land two minutes from suburbia. For the sake of nature and the next generation that grows with it, let’s have more of this please.

References

Holloway, S. (2010) The Historical Atlas of Breeding Birds in Britain and Ireland 1875-1900.

Law, A., Gaywood, M. J., Jones, K. C., Ramsay, P. & Willby, N. J. (2017) Using ecosystem engineers as tools in habitat restoration and rewilding: beaver and wetlands. Sci. Total Environ. 605, 1021-1030.

Lynch, A. H., Hamilton, J. & Hedges, R. E. M. (2008) Where the wild things are: Aurochs and cattle in England. Antiquity. 82, 1025-1039.

Yalden, D. & Albarella, U. (2009) The history of British birds. OUP, Oxford.

 

3 thoughts on “Rewilding the River: Bring nature back to our floodplains

  1. Real nature? You note that Hampshire and IoW Wildlife Trust is taking over the management of Fishlake Meadows to turn it into one of their nature reserves, and where the Trust has declared that it will be “preventing the spread of trees and scrub across open habitats like the grassland, reedbeds and ponds” and the “introduction of cattle grazing, which will help keep scrub at bay and maintain the open wetland habitats that make Fishlake Meadows so special…..helping us to recreate the historic activity that defined the wildlife in this area”. I am in no doubt that turning off the pumps had an impact on the vegetation cover, but it is likely also to have come from the cessation of agriculture, but these changes – the results of the abandonment that you admire – are to be reversed.

    You also mention Winnall Moor. You probably didn’t see it, but the Hampshire Chronicle ran an article in June 2011 that achingly contrasted the fate of two adjacent water meadows in the corridor of the River Itchen near Winchester. The more northerly water meadow is a reserve of the Hampshire and IoW Wildlife Trust, who had a whacking £1.3m, mostly from the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF), to “turn back the clock” on Winnall Moors by chopping down hundreds of alder, poplar and willow and reintroducing cattle grazing. The vision was to return the water meadow to the mostly treeless state that existed in the 1930’s when agriculture sucked the vegetative life out of the landscape. Two smiling trust workers were pictured in the Chronicle article, content in the knowledge that their mastery would re-impose the correct landscape, with trees removed, cattle grazing reinstated, and the long, open views – much loved by the conservation industry – restored.

    As the Chronicle article noted, there had been no outcry at the felling of trees on Winnall Moors as few people live nearby and access is not universal. The situation was however different on the floodplain of Winchester Meadows. Winchester College, the owners, faced with the unfavourable SSSI condition report, drew up plans for a similar tree-felling exercise. Once the plans were out, the criticism began. A Dr Chris Dixon of nearby Kingsgate Street, wrote a letter to the Chronicle, saying that it was the worst idea to “restore” the water meadows to their condition in the 1930s:
    “In the 1960s the college very sensibly decided that removing the cattle and providing a wildlife sanctuary was the right thing to do. Cutting down all the trees and shrubs, fencing off two large areas north of Garnier Road with three strand barbed wire and grazing cattle in the enclosures, will have a devastating effect on the surroundings. The insects and invertebrates the current vegetation supports, allow a huge variety of wildlife to live there”. Dr Dixon had a dim view of the predominantly agricultural landscape that lay to the south of Winchester meadows, where the effect of livestock on the land can be seen for miles: “It is featureless and unattractive, with far less of the wildlife we all enjoy so much”

    The letter was a portent of what was to come from people living in the nearby St Cross area, moving city councillor Robert Sanders to predict widespread opposition as the college’s plans became better known. Local resident Keith Story explained his opposition to tree felling on the basis of the importance of the visual value of the trees, but it went deeper for him:
    ”Many people have an emotional bond, they love large trees and hate to see them taken down”

    Past history now, but beware as history repeats itself. I watched for years a wonderfully wild area of boggy deciduous carr woodland (3.3ha) that borders the B3053 from Old Station Roundabout immediately out of Bishops Waltham to Corhampton/Meonstoke – you could regularly see ducks wandering off the site into the Budgens supermarket. It’s called North Pond on some maps, and I once checked to see if it had any designations (LNR, SSSI) any felling/agri-environment stewardship schemes, or connection to HIOWWT, all of which are the kiss of death to wild nature. It had none, but even then my fears about it were proven true when a few years ago, ghastly “rides” were driven through it by industrial tree felling, and the marshy ground and open water churned up. Real nature. I have no idea why it was done, or who commissioned it, but it is the typical adherence to the mainstream dogma of conservation. Beware, because the same thing is going to happen to Fishlake Meadows

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