Why protecting Suffolk's rivers is so important
PUBLISHED: 11:22 25 April 2019 | UPDATED: 11:22 25 April 2019
Hard work to reverse years of damage to the county's waterways is improving vital wildlife habitats. But we can all do more to clean up | Words: Naomi Gornall - Photos: Environment Agency
Our rivers are the life blood of our countryside. The way we manage them, what we put into them and the amount of water we take from them has a direct positive or negative impact on the environment.
Which is why, one year ago, the Environment Agency in East Anglia launched a 12-month pilot project to focus on four priority river catchments, with the aim of breathing new life into the region's rivers.
Over the centuries, many of Suffolk's rivers and streams have been deepened, widened and straightened, to power mills, enable navigation, drain land for agriculture and reduce the risk of flood.
These historic works have left many rivers with simplified habitats that limit the range of fish, invertebrates and plants they can support.
Dr Nicola Robinson and Dr Trevor Bond took on the roles of priority catchment officers for rivers in East Suffolk, with the aim of improving water quality and creating more diverse river habitats, which helps support fish, invertebrates and plants.
Over the last year, they have worked with partner organisations and landowners on projects that have included river habitat enhancement work on the River Wang, in partnership with East Suffolk Internal Drainage Board, and along a stretch of the River Alde, placing woody material in the river channel to increase the diversity of flow and create more complex habitats.
They have also supported the Yellow Fish campaign, in partnership with Groundwork East, which aims to improve water quality in rivers and streams by ensuring that only rain goes down surface water drains – not pollutants such as oils, paints and detergents.
Pictures of yellow fish have been stencilled on to surface water drains to remind people that these often feed directly into streams and not foul sewers. The team has also visited schools, inviting children to be 'river detectives', encouraging them to record the different species they see in and around their local rivers.
“Spreading the yellow fish message in Suffolk has been very rewarding,” says Dr Robinson. “We are getting vital messages across to children, teaching them the wildlife value of rivers and the importance of an individual's actions to help safeguard the water environment in the future for people and wildlife.”
Dr Bond, priority catchment team leader, says: “What we've been able to achieve in just a few months has made a significant difference to how communities in East Suffolk interact with their rivers.
“Although the pilot is ending, we've left a legacy of investment, both in people and the environment. We're working hard to finish with a flourish and this certainly isn't the last you'll see of us!”
With 2019 hailed by the government as the Year of Green Action, there is even more support to continue the good work and plans are in place to develop new projects.
One of these is a restoration project on the River Blyth. Suffolk Wildlife Trust has just secured a Water Environment Grant of £138,000 to continue working in partnership with the Environment Agency on restoring a section of the river.
A dedicated catchment adviser will be recruited to carry out 6km of river habitat and catchment enhancements, including planting 1,000 native trees alongside rivers.
Penny Hemphill, from Suffolk Wildlife Trust says: “Working in partnership with the Environment Agency has enabled us to combine our knowledge and skills to deliver environmental and biodiversity improvements to our rivers.
“Partnership working is very rewarding for SWT and we hope to continue to deliver such projects in the future with Environment Agency.”
One way to improve a river's water quality is to increase tree cover. In the past, trees near rivers were removed to enable access for maintenance, and grazing pressure from livestock can prevent the establishment of trees even where there is a good source of seed trees.
We now know that trees support a diverse range of animal and plant species. Their underwater root systems create spawning sites and cover for fish and invertebrates to protect them from predators.
Their branches provide shade, helping rivers adapt to the changing climate by reducing high water temperatures in summer. In extreme conditions high water temperatures can kill fish.
Will Akast, the agency's catchment delivery manager-Suffolk says in recent years there has been a realisation that large woody material is a vital component of naturally functioning river systems, influencing water quality, habitat availability, channel shape and sediment transfer.
“This is especially true in the lowland rivers of East Anglia, where woody material is essential for the creation of diverse in-stream habitats. In particular, woody material can be used for a number of benefits, including improving habitat for fishes and other invertebrates.”
One of the projects which has seen the benefit of tree planting is the River Stour Enhancement Project. Carried out by The Dedham Vale Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) and Stour Valley Project and the Environment Agency, the project focuses on river restoration, tree planting, and monitoring and controlling of invasive non-native species such as Giant Hogweed.
Since 2015, more than 5,000 trees have been planted alongside the River Stour, and subsequent surveys have shown an improvement to water quality.
Alex Moore da luz, River Stour project officer with the Dedham Vale AONB and Stour Valley Project, says the success of the project was only made possible due to the strong partnership between the Dedham Vale AONB and Stour Valley Project and the Environment Agency.
“This partnership enables us to find sites and landowners to work with on our Suffolk rivers and to tailor our advice and project ideas accordingly.”
Will Akast says more river habitat enhancements projects are needed, including riparian tree planting, removing redundant weirs and sluices and creating backwaters and bays.
“This will enable our wildlife to thrive in our changing climate.
“We are always looking for interested landowners to work with to enhance river habitats so if you own significant sections of Suffolk rivers or streams – particularly in the Gipping, Blyth and Stour catchments – please get in touch!”
Will Akast, catchment delivery manager-Suffolk, Environment Agency firstname.lastname@example.org
The Year of Green Action
The Year of Green Action aims to get more people involved in projects to improve the natural world.
The government has allocated £10 million to help children from disadvantaged backgrounds access the natural environment – with grants awarded to projects that create greener school grounds and increase the number of school visits to local parks, wildlife sites, care farms and National Parks.
1. Use the car less – walk, cycle, or car share.
2. Consider an electric vehicle. In use, they produce no CO².
3. Stop using pesticides in the garden or allotment. Leave log piles for invertebrates, put up bat and bird boxes, make holes in fences to allow hedgehogs to move freely.
4. Volunteer at a wildlife site.
5. Buy less stuff – reduce pressure on natural resources. Try to repair clothes, tools and gadgets.
6. Eat locally grown fruit and vegetables, less meat and dairy.
7. Use bars of soap not liquid handwash. Save money and reduce plastic.
8. Only rain down the drain! No engine oil, cooking oil, paints, chemical wastes.
9. Encourage children's natural curiosity into garden wildlife. Check out buglife.org.uk
10. Report pollution incidents to the Environment Agency on the hotline, 0800 807060 (free and open 24/7).