Unlocking the Severn – for fish and people

It’s May and the elegant Shad is moving up the River Severn in large numbers to spawn as they have for thousands of years. The arrival of the May fish (as it used to be known) was a big deal in centuries past and was celebrated by communities up and down the river. They not only saw the migration as a welcome sign of Spring but also as a vital source of protein after the hard winter months. Indeed, so plentiful was the Shad that their bodies were ground up and used as fertiliser as far up the river as Shrewsbury.

A Severn Shad

A lovely Severn Shad

This remarkable abundance came to an abrupt end in the 1850s and was a direct (but unintended) consequence of the construction of four huge weirs on the River Severn in Worcestershire. Built to enable large commercial boat traffic to access the growing industrial markets of Birmingham and the Black Country, they also formed an almost complete block to the Shad trying to get upstream.

Journey’s end. Diglis Weir Worcester

Within a few years of the construction of the weirs Shad had completely disappeared from the Severn north of Worcester.

And so it has remained. Every May a population of fish which has been overwintering in the salty water in and around the Severn Estuary make a dash for their freshwater spawning grounds until they bash their heads on Diglis Weir just south of Worcester. They can go no further. A few manage to successfully spawn just below the weir and around the confluence with the River Teme but decent habitat can be measured in metres rather than the many kilometres out of reach above the weirs.

Over the last 150 years the Shad has hung grimly on but thanks to a dedicated partnership of individuals and organisations which has been planning, persuading and plotting for years their fortunes may be about to change.

The Unlocking the Severn Partnership has been successful in putting together a £20 million funding package which will enable the construction of fish passes on all the major weirs on the River Severn (and Teme). This will open up 250km of river to the Shad (and all other fish). Enough for even the most discerning spawners!

Proposed fish pass at Diglis Weir Worcester

Proposed fish pass at Diglis Weir Worcester

The money is available as a result of generous and essential contributions from the European Union LIFE Fund and Heritage Lottery Fund as well as from Partnership members (Canal and Rivers Trust, Severn Rivers Trust, Natural England and the Environment Agency).

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Shad at Tewkesbury migrating upstream – they won’t get further than Worcester!

Unlocking the Severn is an almost unique opportunity and has been described as the holy grail of fish passage in the UK. Because the Shad’s plight is purely the result of a physical block to migration and the huge area of excellent suitable habitat and good water quality upstream the partnership is very confident that once the passes are built fish numbers along the whole length of the river will recover very quickly.

Releasing a tagged Shad at Tewkesbury. May 2018

Similar projects involving fish passage and dam removal in other parts of the world have proved spectacularly successful. In Villaine in France five years after fish passes were installed the upstream Shad population went from none to thousands in 5 years and continued to grow to levels where commercial fishing is now allowed.

But Unlocking the Severn is as much about people as it is about fish. The chance to see a population of native species recover from zero to thriving within a few years is almost unheard of, certainly in the UK. The project will seize that opportunity and provide the opportunity for millions of people to share the journey through a combination of citizen science, local events and social media.

It’s also about reconnecting communities along the length of the river with their greatest natural asset. In centuries past people watched the natural cycles of the Severn with avid interest. A returning fish species, hopefully in huge numbers, provides a new and fascinating reason to do so again.

To start the public engagement process off, a series of fishy events was held along the Severn in April 2018. They were a massive success with thousands of local residents, school children and visitors enthusiastically taking part.

Celebrating World Fish Migration Day at Worcester. April 2018

If the Unlocking the Severn final bid to Heritage Lottery Fund is successful work on the construction of the Severn fish passes will begin in 2019 and be complete by 2022.

Watch this space. And watch those Shad!

Finding needles in haystacks using satellites

Soil and nutrients washing off agricultural land is the single most common reason for our rivers and streams not being as healthy as they should be. Across England it accounts for a quarter of the reasons for waterbodies not achieving good status under Water Framework Directive classifications. In Herefordshire where soils are very light and agricultural practices intensive the figure is a worrying 48%.


Tackling the problem obviously involves finding out where the polluting runoff is coming from. This sounds simple but isn’t! River and stream catchments (the area of land that drains into them) are large. Often the runoff originates quite a distance from the polluted river or stream, finding its way by gravity via roads, paths, ditches and other fields. Also agriculture is a highly mobile industry. 


What is a bare arable field one year might be pasture the next, so the locations of high risk move around.

To help us find the needles in the haystack we’ve turned to modern technology. And it’s working.

Fields of bare soil with no growing crops or grass covering them are clearly much more likely to lose their soil. We can now identify where they are by using the excellent images from the Sentinel 2 satellite which was launched in 2015. 


It crosses the UK every few days so gives us an almost real time picture of land use, although we do have to have clear skies!


We can then overlay other useful information over the top of the satellite imagery which further narrows our search.

Environment Agency LIDAR data provides incredibly accurate information on the height and levels of land. For our search we identify all land that has a slope of more than 6%. This is because soil runoff is much more likely to happen when there is a steep slope.


The next step is to overlay a highly detailed map of the river network. This includes tiny ditches and streams as well as larger rivers and gives a good idea of how soil and nutrients running off the land might find their way into the main river network.


Finally we put on details of soil types. Light, sandy soils are much more likely to be washed off than heavy clays.

By doing all this we can massively reduce the area of the catchment we target for visits by our Environment Officers. 

Our first trial over a whole catchment was carried out on the River Lugg in Herefordshire. Its catchment has a total area of 170 square kilometres. Where to start?!


By selecting areas of bare soil from satellite data we reduced 170km to 30. A lot better but still a massive area to walk over!

By overlaying data layers of steep slopes and soil types we got down to 6.5km and 50 discrete fields. That’s less than 4% of the total catchment area. Much more like it!

Following some typical winter rainfall in early February we mounted an operation to send officers to visit each of the identified 50 locations. They were equipped with iPads (other tablets are available!) with pre-loaded maps and a specially designed app to upload details of what they found. This can include text, photos and video footage. A network connection allows details to be uploaded in real time, although if there’s no reception (fairly common in Herefordshire) data is stored and uploaded as soon as a connection is found.

 
Data and images can been collated immediately and activity coordinated by the operation manager back at the office and also viewed, in real time, by other teams of officers at different locations.


Initial results have been very encouraging. Of the 50 locations visited, 13 were assessed as presenting a high risk of causing immediate pollution problems. 5 were actually causing pollution at the time of the visit despite only relatively small amounts of rainfall.


During the period of the operation no high risk fields were found that hadn’t been highlighted by our targeting system.

We will be contacting all the owners of the 13 high risk locations soon.

Perhaps the most encouraging aspect of the technology (in addition to its accuracy) has been the reaction of our staff who are using it, several remarking it’s revolutionising the way they’re working and making their job far more productive and rewarding.

This is just the start of our journey in using data and technology together in the field to more accurately target our agriculture inspection and regulatory work. It should bring benefits both to the environment and the industry.

Keeping Herefordshire’s soil where it belongs

Soil washing off fields is an increasingly common problem across the UK. Not only is it a waste of a precious, non renewable (at least in sensible timescales) resource, it causes serious pollution in rivers and streams and dangers to road users. More intense rainfall and increased intensification of agriculture appear to be making matters worse.

Herefordshire is especially vulnerable. The fine red soils which give the County much of its landscape character, are easily mobilised by heavy rain and the undulating terrain means it can move quickly and over long distances.


On 15 June, a number of heavy but localised showers and thunderstorms in Herefordshire resulted in tonnes of soil being washed from many field onto roads, then into ditches and streams. This resulted in some of the larger watercourses, like the River Lugg becoming discoloured through increased turbidity. Levels of nutrients, for example phosphate would also have been raised significantly.


The main areas of concern are where steeply sloping fields have been cultivated next to watercourses, especially potatoes, maize and soft fruits grown under plastic. Here the risk of soil erosion is much higher. We have identified many of these locations using Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR) information, aerial photography and field surveys. Because agriculture is so dynamic we need to keep reviewing this information. What is a high risk maize field one year might be low risk pasture land the next.

These higher risk sites were shown to be washing significant quantities of soil during Wednesday 15 and Thursday 16 June with significant impacts to roads and watercourses.

It is not just the Environment Agency that is concerned about soil washing off. Local Authority Highways are particularly concerned about this issue.


 Putting aside the obvious road safety issues associated with mud on highways, the cleanup costs from soil on roads can be very significant for Local Authorities, who will seek to recover these costs from landowners wherever possible. 


Increased runoff from fields also increases the risk of flooding to local properties with floodwater depositing large quantities of sediment onto private land .

As Regulators, we have been working to identify high risk sites, where soil run off is likely to be most significant and where risk to local watercourses is greatest.


 After rainfall events we gather evidence and information that we use for future enforcement and prosecution action and to refer sites to the Rural Payments Agency, where a breach of the soil standards in England have been identified under cross compliance.    

Farm HEREfordshire has been set up in the last year in an attempt to raise awareness of soil erosion and pollution while promoting sustainable and profitable farming. It is possible to achieve both! It’s a partnership supported by industry, voluntary organisations and statutory bodies like us. See more about its work and some nice little videos here http://www.wyecatchment.org/farm-herefordshire/
If you see large amounts of soil washing off into local streams please report it on our 24 hour incident hotline 0800 80 70 60. 

Crayfish carnage in Worcestershire

On the 6th July we electric fished the Suckley Brook at Longley Green, Worcestershire as part of our routine sampling programme. 

  

Sadly the results were abysmal, we caught 2 x 3 spined stickleback and 1 large eel in 100m stretch. 

   
 
The reason? Signal crayfish, large and small. Every time we tuned the current on there they were. We caught and dispatched what we could but they appear to have decimated the watercourse as they’ve eaten much of the insect life and the fish fry leaving a very barren stretch. 

  

This non-native species was first introduced to Britain in the 1970s and has spread to many of our rivers and streams. It out-competes our native white-clawed crayfish and, as our survey shows, can have serious impacts on the local freshwater ecology.

Unfortunately, the problems caused by signal crayfish were compounded at the survey location by overshading and heavy sedimentation caused by run-off from farmland within the catchment (both also common issues on lowland watercourses)

  
 It was a sad sight to be hold. We’d hoped trout would be hiding under all the large woody debris but alas nothing. 

Bug sorting

A guest blog by Libby

The Spring ecology sampling season began at the beginning of March and our Sampling and Collection team are out and about, busy collecting invertebrate samples. On 5th March a macro-invertebrate sample was collected by Laura (see previous blog post) on the Piddle Brook and brought back to the Analysis and Reporting Team’s laboratory in Tewkesbury to be preserved. The sample is now ready for me to begin the invertebrate analysis process.

I begin the analysis by washing the sample through a very fine meshed sieve to remove all of the preservative. I have to be careful to make sure no tiny invertebrates are washed away down the sink! I then put a small amount of the sample into a white tray.

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The trays are divided into squares and I work through each square, pulling out all of the invertebrates present using small forceps. It can be difficult to spot them all in the trays, especially some of the very tiny ones! Can you spot the invertebrates in the picture of the tray below?

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Once I am happy I have removed all the invertebrates from the tray I will wash the sorted section into a sieve. I then continue to take out all the invertebrates from the rest of the sample. This process usually takes me a whole day, a lot of patience is required for this job!

After I have removed all the invertebrates from the entire sample I then move onto counting and identifying all the specimens. I have to identify them to species level, which I do using a high powered microscope, lots of identification keys and some very fine forceps!

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Species identification often involves looking at small features, such as tiny hairs, and dissection, such as mouthparts and gills. The picture below shows the mouthparts of a mayfly larva, Baetidae, which sometimes require dissection to identify to species level. To do this I need a very steady hand!

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After I have identified all the invertebrates I enter the list of species onto our ecology database, Biosys, and check to see whether the sample will be put through our Analytical Quality Control (AQC) system.  To make sure my, identification and sorting remains at a consistently high standard, 1 in 10 samples are analysed again by AQC analysts. This can be a nerve wracking process but keeps us on our toes! Luckily my sample has not been selected for AQC, if it had been I wouldn’t have been allowed to exceed either  2 invertebrate family gains and/or misses in a sample.

In order to keep my skills up to scratch, I also have to complete 4 species ring tests and at least 1 reverse ring test each year. The species ring test involves identifying a set of invertebrate samples to species level and successfully meeting the pass mark. If I’m selected for a reverse ring test I will put together a vial of all the species present in the sample which will be identified again by an experienced analyst. This may seem like a tough and thorough process but it is essential to ensure the data we collect is of the highest quality.

The invertebrate species present in the sample can give me a lot of information about the quality of the site because each invertebrate species has varying habitat preferences to different pressures. To help me do this there are a number of analysis tools and indices available. For example, the Proportion Sediment sensitive Invertebrates (PSI) index combines each species’ tolerance to sediment levels to create an overall score which indicates whether a site is impacted by sediment pressures. We use the Walley Hawkes Paisley Trigg (WHPT) index to analyse an invertebrate communities tolerance to organic pollution, which incorporates deteriorations associated with changes to taxa abundances. There are also tools available to analyse invertebrate community’s to see if they are impacted by flow, habitat and pesticides.

As I’m analysing the Piddle Brook sample I notice it contains relatively high numbers of snails and small numbers of multi-gilled cased caddis and mayfly larvae. The picture below shows some of the snails and a cased caddis that I have found in the sample. These invertebrates favour habitats with sluggish flows and indicates to me that slower flows are experienced at the site. I haven’t found any highly sensitive taxa in the sample but there were a number of moderately sensitive taxa present, such as the caseless caddis Hydropsychidae and cased caddis Limnephilidae. The overall scores for the site are consistent with previous years’ data, indicating there has been no deterioration in quality at the site.

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The results from the sample will be used to classify the Piddle Brook for the Water Framework Directive (WFD) next year. The aim of the WFD is for all waterbodies to achieve Good status by 2027. To classify the invertebrates I identified for WFD the data will be combined with a sample collected in the autumn from the site and the results analysed using a tool called the River Invertebrate Classification Tool (RICT). The tool will compare the results from the site (the observed scores) to an un-impacted reference condition site (the expected scores for a site of this type) to create an Environmental Quality Ratio (EQR). The EQR will fall between 0 and 1, a score closer to 1 indicates a site which is less impacted. The EQR determines which of the 5 WFD classification groups (Bad through to High) the invertebrate site will be classified as.

At the end of the day I thoroughly wash the sieves and trays that I used so they are ready for me to use tomorrow to sort the next sample.

A year I won’t forget! My 2014

January and February

A conveyor belt of storms, pushed along by a supercharged jetstream, led to prolonged and widespread flooding across much of England during the first two months of 2014.

Our incident room in Tewkesbury was open 24/7 for 63 days between Christmas 2013 and the beginning of March. Across the Severn and Wye catchments hundreds of flood warnings were issued, barriers went up and down, river blockages were removed, reappeared and removed again. Our 250 local staff were pushed to the limits. I’ve seen bigger floods but never one as long lasting!
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As 2014 started our immediate concerns were high tides and surges in the Severn Estuary rather than conventional river flooding. Storm systems barrelling in off the Atlantic were pushing water up the funnel of the Estuary and this was coinciding with very high tides. Our flood defences protected thousands of homes along the Estuary but in a few locations the water was so high it came over the top, causing flooding behind.

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The power and speed of this type of flooding is awesome. Water levels rise very quickly and once water comes over the top of flood banks it travels a long way very fast!

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I spent several days around Minsterworth just below Gloucester servicing the demands of a voracious media pack which took up residence around the appropriately-named Severn Bore pub (which was flooded).
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The tides receded soon after New Year but there was no time to relax as river levels were rising rapidly on the Severn upstream of Gloucester as a result of prolonged heavy rainfall. Our flood barriers started going up at Bewdley and Shrewsbury and flood warnings became more frequent and widespread as the rain kept coming.

A brief respite towards the end of January was swiftly followed by more high tides coinciding with surges at the start of February resulting in more flooding a disruption along the Severn and Wye Estuaries. We were growing increasingly concerned about the cumulative effects of high water and wave action on our flood defences on the Severn Estuary and a lot of time was taken making sure that they remained effective.

Flooding reached its peak around the middle of February. The cumulative effects of two months of exceptional rainfall across the south of England. On our patch the biggest problems were on the River Severn from Bewdley to Tewkesbury where levels were the highest seen for over ten years in many locations.

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Other communities were also badly affected, including Callow End and East Waterside in Upton. In Worcester many homes in the Diglis area were also flooded. Spending time with flooded home and business owners is a sobering experience and probably the thing that drives me most to do whatever I can to help.

However, the local situation would have been much, much worse if it hadn’t been for our flood defences; most of which had been build since the huge floods of 2007.
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Upton, Pershore, Kempsey, Powick, Bewdley and parts of Gloucester and Worcester would all have been flooded at the levels we experienced.

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Over 500 homes and businesses in Worcestershire alone stayed dry because of our defences and the hard work of our folk who made sure they were in place and working properly.

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For a few days in mid February, Worcester became the centre of national media attention as water levels neared those of 2007. In addition to the flooding to some homes and businesses the transport network was seriously affected, causing gridlock and concerns for the town’s economy.

A huge operation involving all the responding organisations (police, fire, ambulance, councils, volunteers and even the army) swung into action to manage the situation and minimise the impacts. I was proud to be part of that response. It wasn’t perfect but I honestly believe it made a real difference.

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I spent two weeks on and around Worcester Bridge, juggling media interviews, Silver Command meetings and simply being the face of the Environment Agency.

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Without doubt the most surprising and bizarre occurrence of the two months was the public reaction to my media appearances and social media ramblings. It may surprise you that signing autographs and posing for photos is not part of a normal Environment Agency working day!

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By the end of February the worst of the flooding was over, although we had one more set of high tides and surges on the Severn Estuary to contend with. It had been a bonkers two months that had stretched us to the limits. Many of our people had been working solidly in all weathers, in 24/7 shifts since before Christmas. We were knackered!

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Fortunately, flooding did not return and it wasn’t until the very end of the year that river levels began to rise again.

March

The waters may have been receding but much of March was spent dealing with the aftermath of the floods.

Months of high river levels and big flows resulted in debris building up against many bridges and structures. We need to remove these, both to prevent damage to the structures and to reduce the risk of flooding when the waters rise again. They are often also very unsightly and attract many complaints!

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Probably the most high profile of these debris build-ups happens against Worcester Bridge. In early March we mounted an operation to remove remaining debris which included whole trees which had become wedged between the arches.

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This is a really difficult job and I’ve huge respect for our guys who carry it out. Using chain saws, on little boats, in fast flowing water to tackle objects you can only partly see, is one heck of a challenge.

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But our folk are the best in the business and the bridge (and many others) was left in perfect shape, ready for the next flood!

After every flood we have a number of places we always keep an eye on for stranded fish. Sounds strange, but our local flood plains are so big, and the flows so massive that fish often either get washed out or choose to explore the large expanses of flood water. When the water goes down they are left high and dry!

It’s usually more of an issue in summer floods when the fish are more active, so we were quite surprised when one of our hotspots – Worcester Racecourse – provided a good catch.

Once we’ve spotted stranded fish we have to wait until the water has almost gone so they are concentrated in a small area. Clearly this is a balancing act as if we wait too long they’ll suffocate or be eaten by birds!

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A simple netting operation at just the right time yielded some magnificent pike, bream and roach which were measured and swiftly returned to the River Severn which was now back where it should be!

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We are able to do this work because of the funding we receive from anglers who buy rod licences.

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April

By April things were getting back on an even keel!

For the second year running there was a massive run of elvers (baby eels) on the Severn Estuary. This is against a background of many years of declining numbers and the reasons for it are not understood. However, it means more eels returning to colonise our local river network so it’s very good news!

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We spent a lot of time on the high tides in March and April (when the main elver movements occur) making sure that the elver fishers on the Estuary were abiding by the rules of the fishery. The rules are designed to allow fishing but to limit the amount of elvers that can be taken.

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Most elver fishers are very conservation-minded and much good work was done again this year in stocking Estuary-caught elvers further up the river system to assist their migration.

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We also had a great day at the superb Cobhouse Fishery near Worcester, explaining our work on local fisheries and offering kids the chance to have a go a fishing.

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It’s always a pleasure to see how enthused children are when experiencing angling for the first time. Many have never seen live fish outside a tank.

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We hope that by giving them an early taster some will become hooked!

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May

In May we were able to carry out some improvement works to the River Leadon in Herefordshire. The Leadon has suffered a bit over the last few decades. There have been a number of pollution incidents that have damaged the plants and animals that live in it; in some places run-off from fields is putting large amounts of nutrients and sediments into the water; and in others the banks have become bare and eroded offering little in the way of suitable habitat.

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We worked with the Wild Trout Trust and local angling clubs to carry out some practical bankside improvement works. The aim is to work with the natural shape and flows of the river and create the right conditions for better quality habitat (for fish, plants and insects) to establish themselves.

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We hope that the angling clubs will be able to put their new skills to good use and create more habitat in future years. Turning around the fortunes of a river like the Leadon is neither simple nor quick, but it is possible and the results are very rewarding.

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Our fish survey season got underway. One of the first tasks was the most challenging – catching fish in the mile wide Severn Estuary.

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For fuller details see my earlier post, but we use a huge conical net called a fyke net which we leave staked in place and allow the tide to deliver fish to us!

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As you’d expect we catch a mix of sea and freshwater fish. This time mullet and sea bass were the main species with some fine large eels too.

June

By June our fish survey programme is in full swing (providing there is no flooding!). Every year we survey dozens of sites on rivers and streams across the Severn and Wye catchments.

Most of our survey work is done by electrofishing (passing a small electric current through the water to stun fish). We sample all sorts of watercourses, from tiny streams to major rivers.

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To make sure we can compare the information we gather we survey the same lengths and locations of river.

Overall, results during 2014 were very promising with good numbers of fish and a nice variety of species. We use the information to assess the overall health of the river and to plan and prioritise future action.

A few highlights included:

A nice flounder on the Longdon Brook in deepest Worcestershire

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Native crayfish on the Rivers Onny and Lugg

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Huge hauls of coarse fish (including this tench) on the River Swilgate in Tewkesbury

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Net fulls of lovely trout outside Waitrose in Cheltenham town centre

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July

We were back in incident mode in July. Not because of floods this time, rather a major fire at a factory in Stroud.

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The huge blaze was swiftly extinguished by our friends at Gloucestershire Fire and Rescue but we were very concerned about the possible impacts of contaminated water (used to put the fire out) escaping from the site. Fire-fighting water is always nasty stuff as it picks up chemicals from whatever is burning, but in this case we had two further reasons to be concerned. Firstly, there were a lot of chemicals stored on the site and we were unsure whether they had been burned and got into the fire water. Secondly, the factory backed directly onto the River Frome meaning the water wouldn’t have to travel far to get in.

For several days we worked with the Fire Brigade and the factory owners to prevent water escaping from the site as best we could and monitoring the river and surrounding environment for traces of chemicals or damage to wildlife.

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Some contaminated water did get into the Frome but nowhere near as much as would have without our quick intervention and that of Gloucestershire Fire and Rescue.

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We continued to monitor for several weeks but fortunately no significant problems were found.

In July we also took part in the excellent SOS Fest at Worcester Racecourse. This is an event attended by all the emergency services and is an opportunity for the good folk of Worcester to see some impressive hardware and chat with front line officers.

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Attendance was superb on a very hot Saturday, with numbers measured in the thousands.

We were able to provide lots of advice on flooding and how to avoid it and also to show off our practical skills with the flood barrier challenge.

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A team of our finest chaps put up a length of flood barrier against the clock. Prizes were on offer for people guessing the time taken. Needless to say it got quite competitive!

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For me it was a nice opportunity to do some more relaxed media interviews and spend some time with our fellow emergency responders.

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Ironically in what was a very wet year, by the end of July the top of the River Teme had been reduced to a trickle by a few weeks of dry weather. This is a fairly regular occurrence but causes the problem of large numbers of fish getting stranded in small pools of water that are rapidly drying out.

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So we had to deploy the rescue team again to catch good numbers of salmon and trout and return them to safer locations downstream. By August the rains had return and the previously dry sections of the river became torrents!

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August and September

Sadly it won’t be floods, fires or fish that I remember 2014 for. It will always be the year I lost my mum.

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She died on August 4th after a long battle with cancer. Inevitably most of the rest of the month and much of September for me was about making funeral arrangements and sorting affairs.

October

Immediately after last winter’s floods we carried out inspections of every inch of our flood defences (with help from the army). This was a massive task and took many months.

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Overall they stood up very well to several months of pounding by record-breaking storms but, inevitably there was some damage, especially in the Severn Estuary. Fortunately the Government gave us some extra money to carry out repairs.

By the end of October all of our defences had been restored to full working order, ready for whatever winter 2014/15 throws at us!
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It was good to visit Minsterworth again (see January/February) and see the repairs nearing completion.
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October also saw the biggest emergency exercise on our patch for quite a while. It took place at Shrub Hill station in Worcester and re-created a major train crash.

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Hundreds of emergency responders took part with loads of volunteers playing the part of trapped and injured passengers. It was certainly realistic with plenty of blood and severed limbs scattered around!

It’s very reassuring to see the skills and levels of resources that can be mustered in the event of major incidents. Although only there as an observer I did manage to help quite a few “injured” passengers off the trains! Well, you’ve got to get stuck in, haven’t you!

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November

We responded to hundreds of environmental incidents across our patch during 2014. An unusual one happened in November when a large lorry crashed on the main Hereford to Worcester road, blocking it completely and causing traffic chaos. Nowt to do with us you might say, but in this case as the lorry crashed it went through a hedge and demolished a 5000 litre oil tank on the other side.

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What was left of the tank was buried under a huge pile of debris, making assessment of the impacts somewhat tricky.

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Fortunately there was no watercourse nearby and the spilt oil could be contained and cleaned up without any significant damage to the environment. More importantly there were no serious injuries despite the carnage.

Once again, the incident highlights our close working relationship with other emergency services and the fact you never know what you’re going to get when you’re on duty!

In November, we also welcomed Liz Truss, Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, to Worcester.

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Along with other partners we were able to tell her about the response to flooding earlier in the year, the new flood defences created across Worcestershire and the challenges we all face in the future.

December

Just to show that things don’t always go to plan! In December we carried out a major fish netting operation at Upton Warren nature reserve near Droitwich. We were working with our friends at the Worcestershire Nature Conservation Trust who manage the site and want to know more about the type and numbers of fish in the pool so they can better plan future management.

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Word was that the large pool (covering a couple of acres) was stuffed full of fish of all kinds. We were looking forward to a bumper haul.

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Many hours later, having deployed our full range of nets and netting techniques we had caught a grand total of two fish, and one of those was a stickleback!

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Our excuses were an unbelievable amount of silt and stinky mud, making access to the water tricky and unpleasant and loads of submerged rubbish, meaning large sweeps of the big nets were impossible. We’re still confident there’s a pile of fish in there – just that we didn’t catch them!

By year end we were starting to see the rivers beginning to rise again as soils became saturated and rainfall began to build up.

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By the middle of the month we had to put up our barriers again at Shrewsbury, being careful to work around the panto timings at the theatre!

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To our huge relief, Christmas flooding didn’t happen, allowing many of us the first Christmas off in three years. Which was nice!

So another eventful year came to an end. What 2015 will bring, I have no idea, but I suspect it won’t be boring!

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Pulling up primroses in Worcestershire

We’ve spent a lot of time pulling up and destroying a pretty water plant at a lake near Pershore in Worcestershire.

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There is method in our madness as the plant concerned is the creeping water primrose (CWP) which can cause serious havoc if left to spread. Also known by its scientific name Ludwigia peploides, it is one of the most wanted on a growing list of plants and animals that are getting established in Britain and have the potential to cause serious damage to our native wildlife and ecosystems. Collectively they are given the scary title of non-native invasive species.

CWP real home is in south America but it has been used widely as an ornamental plant in garden ponds and amenity pools. However, it has spread from some locations into the local environment where it has become established and very successful. In many places it is able to out-compete native plants and forms a dense blanket.

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Not only does this mean that large areas are not available to native plants and animals, CWP can also entirely cover large pools, streams and rivers, making them unavailable for recreational activities but also significantly raising flood risk.

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In France where CWP is widely established millions of Euros are spent trying to control the impacts, while in California a large eradication programme is costing between $6-30,000 per acre to remove it mechanically.

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Fortunately , in Britain CWP is not widely established and is limited to a handful of known locations. We are very keen to keep it this way and are therefore putting considerable efforts to eradicate it where we know about it. Where it is only present in relatively small amounts we can pull it up by hand and destroy the remains. We have to be very careful and thorough as the plant is highly effective at propagating itself from fragments that remain (or worse spread by the pulling process). We will have to keep visiting the sites for several years to ensure it is not returning.

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You can help us prevent the spread of CWP (and other invasive plants) by reporting any sighting using our PlantTracker app. Download it free here: http://planttracker.naturelocator.org

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Find out more about non-native invasive species here: https://secure.fera.defra.gov.uk/nonnativespecies/home/index.cfm

See our top 10 invasive species here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/nature/22126467

How old’s that fish? – Count the rings!

We analyse fish scales to determine the age and growth statistics of fish populations. The information we obtain from fish scales is key to informing effective future management of fish stocks.

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The red areas on the body of the fish are where scales are removed from.  Scales are always removed above the lateral line so as not to damage it.  The lateral line contains sense organs allowing fish to detect movement in the water.

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The photo above shows a fish being de-scaled.  Tweezers are used to carefully pull out scales.  Between 3 and 5 are removed and submitted to the laboratory for analysis.  Scales can grow back and are called replacements, however the early growth history of the fish is absent from these scales so they are of no use for ageing purposes.

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Scales are removed from trout and salmon using a scalpel, the photo shows scales being placed into the storage envelope and a trout being returned to the aerated water.

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This is a close up of a fish scale.  The growth rings are called ‘annuli’.  The age is determined by the number of growth rings.  The length is determined by the spacing between the growth rings. Like tree rings!

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The photo above shows a chub caught at in the River Salwarpe at Droitwich during our routine fish survey in June 2014.  It looks slightly ragged because it recently spawned.  This fish is 319mm long and aged at 9 years old, which is written as 9+.  The oldest chub caught during the survey was aged at 11+!  Eleven years old is a fantastic age for a chub as they grow slowly. 12 years is the maximum life expectancy for chub.

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This is a dace, also caught in the River Salwarpe at Droitwich during our routine fish survey in June 2014.  This fish is 175mm long and aged at 5 years old (5+).  This is a good age for this species; it matures in its second year and rarely lives longer than 7 years.

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The red curve on the graph shows the growth rate of chub in the River Salwarpe. It shows that they grew at an average rate in the early life stages, and then slowed.  This can be attributed to water quality, the availability of food (invertebrates) and the availability of suitable habitat.

Age 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11
Length (mm) 28 88 160 226 264 292 308 325 335.5 352 380

This table shows the length of the chub calculated during each year class.  From this data we can ascertain the health of fish populations within the river system and compare it to annual trends.  This data is of particular interest to anglers.

The fish are at it, and we want you to watch. All in the name of science!

20130509-155522.jpgWith longer days and warmer weather, our rivers spring into life becoming a hive of activity. Our precious aquatic life has been waiting for the warming spring sunshine and the rise in river temperature to complete their annual cycles of reproduction.

We want you to stop for a moment look down the bank and peer through the water to marvel at nature’s spectacle of fish spawning.

Watch as the smaller male barbel fight for the right to pair with the much larger female.

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Witness the game of chase between large male and female carp in our stillwaters. Be dazzeled by the silvery flashes from the roach as they writhe around sticking their eggs amongst the water weeds. See the delicate but fastidious nest building of the almost prehistoric looking Sea Lamprey.

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These are only some of the fish species that provide this mesmerizing spectacle if you stop and take the time to peer through the surface of our brooks, rivers, ponds and lakes.

The resident fish, mammals, bugs and beasties are all an indication of the health of our rivers. Fish spawning indicates the right environments are present to reproduce and each species will need some special niche and exact conditions in order to complete their breeding cycles. By watching and recording we can monitor the health of our rivers, so please join in with #spawningwatch and share your experience.

We would like to take an opportunity through social media to raise awareness that many fish species that are spawning at this time of year.

When you are all out and about for walk along the bank or off fishing, please look out for signs of any spawning fish activity, try to capture the moment on camera and report them back via twitter using #spawningwatch. Copy me and/or Environment Agency Midlands in too (@davethroupea , @envagencymids )

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Those folk who really want to get involved like our friends in the angling community can also help by identifying either known or suspected prime spawning sites e.g. really clean gravels or prime weed beds.

To help you this table gives you some detailed information about where you’re likely to find spawning sites:

Species Juvenile habitat Adult habitat Spawning
Barbel Shallow, sand/fine gravel substrates, submerged vegetation. Moderate to strong flow, high O2, sand/gravel/pebble substrate, associated with riparian and in-stream cover. Lithophilic – gravel and pebbles, 30-40cm, min. 14oC, April – July.
Bleak Backwater and side arms with vegetation. Enriched slow flows, main channel and backwaters. Phyto-lithophilic- gravel and vegetation, shallow water, min. 15oC, April – July.
Bream Silt substrate and vegetation moving to sand/gravel substrate avoiding submerged vegetation. Back waters and deep slow flows. Will tolerate brackish water. Phyto-lithophilic – vegetation and sometimes gravel. 50-90cm, 12-25oC, May – June.
Bullhead Gravel/pebble/cobble substrate, variable flow. Gravel/pebble/cobble substrate, variable flow. Gravel/pebble substrate, nest builder, March – May.
Carp Slow flows, thick vegetation, backwaters. Slow flows, thick vegetation, tolerate enrichment and low DO. Phytophilic- vegetation, 80-100cm, min. 18oC, May – July. Migrate to spawn.
Chub Sand/silt substrate, slow flow, shallow eroding areas Gravel substrate, moderate flow, in-stream obstacles/cover. Will tolerate slow flows. Lithophilic – gravel, depth not important, 18-20oC, May – July. Multiple spawning. Local migration to spawn.
Dace Cool, shallow waters, gravel substrate, shallow banks, avoid submerged vegetation. Sand and gravel substrate with moderate to fast flows. Avoid silt/mud substrate. Tolerates brackish water. Lithophilic – gravel, shallow, good flow, 6-9oC, March – April.
Eel Migrate into freshwater as elvers utilizing a wide range of habitats. Wide range of habitat preference – rip rap to silt beds. Downstream migration of adults. March – June in Sargasso sea.
Grayling Cool well oxygenated water, gravel substrate, bankside marginal habitat. Cool oxygenated water, gravel/pebble substrate, fast flows, avoid heavy vegetation, pH 6.5-9, O2 5-7mg/l at 20oC, 4-18oC. Gravel/pebble substrate, 3-14oC. March – June. Local migration.
Gudgeon Shallow areas close to bank vegetation cover. Sand substrate, slow – moderate flow Psammophilic – sand or gravel amongst vegetation, 17oC+, May – July.
Lamprey (Brook) Sand/silt beds, slower flows Clear, gravel/pebble substrate, medium flow Gravel/pebbles, good flow, June – July.
Minnow Shoaling species, well oxygenated, prefer gravel/pebble substrate in marginal habitat. Shoaling species, well oxygenated, prefer gravel/pebble substrate in marginal habitat. Gravel/pebbles, good flow, 14-16oC. April – June. Migrate upstream.
Perch Shallow, vegetated bankside Submerged vegetation, slow to moderate flow, associated with complex habitats. Phyto-lithophilic – silt/sand, vegetation essential, deep water, 8.5-13oC, April – May.
Pike Vegetation, shallow, sheltered water. Silt/sand substrate, slow flow, deep water with submerged vegetation. Phyto-lithophilic – silt/sand, vegetation essential, deep water, 6-8oC, March – May.
Roach Sand/silt substrate, slow flow, dense vegetation Sand/gravel substrate, bankside vegetation and sections of open water with faster flow. Fixed home range. Phyto-lithophilic – emergent and submerged vegetation, stones, 15-150cm depth, 7-21oC, April – June. Migrate to spawn.
Rudd Slow flows, thick vegetation, backwaters. Slow flows, thick vegetation, backwaters. Phytophilic – dense macrophyte growth, 10-90cm, 14-20oC, May – July.
Ruffe Slow flow, submerged vegetation, benthic species. Slow flow, submerged vegetation, benthic species. Phytophilic – submerged vegetation, March – May.
Salmon First few years in freshwater then downstream migration to sea. Anadromous. Migrates to freshwater fully grown to spawn. Cobble/pebble substrate, fast flow. Gravel/pebble substrate, fast flow, October – January. Migratory.
Spined Loach Benthic, silt/sand substrate. Slow flows, sand/silt substrate. Benthic species, burrow into substrate. Small streams – lakes. Phyto-lithophilic – gravel and vegetation. April – July.
Stickleback Wide range of habitat preferences including estuaries, thick vegetation. Wide range of habitat preferences including estuaries, proliferates in thick vegetation. Phytophilic – builds nest. March – June.
Stone Loach Sand/gravel substrate, variable flow, dense vegetation. Sand/gravel substrate, variable flow, dense vegetation. Phyto-lithophilic – gravel and vegetation, good flow. April – May.
Tench Silt substrate and submerged vegetation. Shallow back waters and slow flows. Silt substrate and submerged vegetation. Shallow back waters and slow flows. Phytophilic – submerged vegetation, 18-24oC, June – August. Multiple spawning.
Trout Cool well oxygenated water, gravel substrate, physical cover important. Deeper water – runs and pools. Physical cover important. 4-20oC. clean gravel/cobble substrate, riffles, October – December. Migratory.

We will make good use of all the information we receive, adding to our existing knowledge of spawning habitat and using it to inform our future planning and restoration work.

All our fisheries staff will also be joining in and we’ll let you know what we’re finding via the #spawningwatch hashtag. We may even catch up with the long distance travellers that migrate back to our rivers from the deep Atlantic such as the elusive Sea Lamprey and the rare Twaite Shad.

Please note at this stage we’re only looking for reports and information from the Severn and Wye catchments (most of Shropshire, Herefordshire, Worcestershire and Gloucestershire).

Top tips for spying on fish

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  • Invest in a pair of Polaroid sunglasses to reduce the glare on the surface water
  • Crouch when approaching the river bank and keep your shadow off the water
  • Approach the river very quietly, fish are very sensitive to noise and vibration
  • Move slowly, use cover (trees) approach from downstream
  • Look in the early morning and late evening when the light makes it easier to see fish below the surface

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Fires, floods and fish – the story of my 2013

January

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After a brief respite 2013 continued in the vein of 2012, with flooding across the Severn catchment. Cold weather in the middle of the month resulted in a build up of snow in the Welsh mountains. A rise in temperatures coincided with heavy rain in late January. The snow melted quickly filling rivers up, the rain pushing levels up higher.

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Flood defences which had only just been packed away were swiftly pressed into action again and we were back into the incident room. At least we were all well practised after 2012! Levels on the River Severn were particularly high at the top of the catchment meaning we had to deploy our demountable defences at Shrewsbury and Bewdley as well as the temporary (A frame) defences at Ironbridge and Bewdley.

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Media interest was particularly high after the problems of 2012. In the event the flood passed through without serious problems and by the end of the month levels were dropping as drier weather set in.

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February

The weather was fairly benign through February meaning the threat of flooding receded. However, a number of serious environmental incidents across our patch meant that there was little time to relax.

Two major failures of anaerobic digestion plants led to the threat of significant pollution to adjacent watercourses. The biggest was at Harper Adams University in Shropshire where thousands of litres of highly polluting digestate escaped from the site. We opened an incident room to coordinate our on and off site response with Shropshire Fire and Rescue and the University. Although we managed to contain most of the run-off on nearby fields some did find its way into local streams which we treated with hydrogen peroxide to ensure oxygen levels didn’t drop (digestate is very effective at stripping oxygen from water). Fortunately the large and rapid response meant serious environmental damage was averted.

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Before we’d finished dealing with the anaerobic digester incidents a large fire at a metal recycling plant in Lydney Gloucestershire broke out on 21st.

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Great work by Gloucestershire Fire and Rescue meant the fire was put out quickly but it did require the use of huge volumes of water. Water used for firefighting picks up a lot of pollutants and our job is to work with the fire service to prevent as much as possible getting into the environment. In this case we deployed a lot of staff and kit to prevent the water getting into the River Lyd which flows past the site. Again swift response prevented significant amounts of polluting stuff getting into the local environment.

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March

To say March 2013 was cold would be an understatement. It was the coldest March in 50 years and the second coldest on record. The overall mean temperature was over 3c lower than the long term average.

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On many days the temperature remained below freezing and there were frequent falls of snow. Due to the build up of a large snow pack across the Welsh mountains we became concerned about the prospects of a rapid thaw which would deliver all the locked- up water into the River system. Once again we had to open our incident room on a number of occasions to monitor the situation and advise our partners on the likely impacts.

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March is also the time when migrating baby eels (elvers) make their way up the Severn Estuary to access the Midlands river network. 2013 saw the biggest elver run for many years with millions making it into the Estuary. There is an established elver fishery on the Severn where controlled numbers are taken for re-stocking other areas. Unfortunately there is also a considerable amount of illegal elver fishing which presents a risk to the species which is internationally endangered. During March we undertook a number of successful operations to disrupt illegal elvering and catch the culprits.

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We use some sophisticated kit (night vision cameras and glasses, radar and high powered boats) to detect criminal activity. We took ITV West Country on one of our patrols see a clip here: http://itv.co/Kh1T7b

April
Some decent weather allowed us to get cracking on our fish monitoring programme. It was good to get away from incidents for a while and get up close and personal with some of our fishy friends.

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On small rivers and streams, like the River Isbourne in Worcestershire (below), we use elecrofishing to sample the fish that are present. A small electric current is passed through the water which temporarily stuns the fish allowing us to scoop them up. We then measure them and take scale samples before releasing them unharmed. By sampling the same sites we can see how they’re going over time.

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I’m pleased to report we found a very healthy population of fish on the Isbourne, including trout, eels and bullheads.

However, the peace didn’t last long and on 17th a fire broke out at a large flooring factory on Rothewas Industrial Estate in Hereford. There were immediate concerns about toxic smoke blowing over Hereford and a Silver Command meeting was quickly set up. This is a meeting of all responding organisations (such as police, fire and rescue, ambulance, local authorities and health services – and us!) to ensure the response is adequate and joined up. I represent the Environment Agency at these meetings.

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It became apparent that the fire could be extinguished quickly and that smoke would not be a problem. However, we were concerned that the River Wye flows past and the industrial estate drains into it. So we spent the rest of the day working with Hereford and Worcester Fire and Rescue tracing the on site surface water drainage and ensuring contaminated water was not entering the river.

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May

At the start of May we borrowed an electrofishing boom boat from our colleagues in the South East to carry out some fish monitoring on the River Severn in Shropshire. This impressive vessel is specially designed to sample fish in large rivers and provides a large electric field. Big rivers present a real challenge when undertaking fish surveys: they’re too big to use conventional electro fishing kit, too wide and deep to net, and irregular bed profiles and obstructions make using sonar unreliable.

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We caught good numbers and a wide selection of fish including some large pike and perch, a shoal of roach, dace, chub, ruffe, gudgeon, European eel and juvenile Atlantic salmon as well as plenty of bullheads and minnows.

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The middle of the month saw another incident threatening the local environment. This time is was a fire at a food oil reprocessing factory in Stourport on Severn. The buildings are almost on the banks of the River Severn but fortunately the quick thinking and response of Hereford and Worcester Fire and Rescue and our officers, working through the night, meant that all contaminated water was contained behind hastily constructed bunds. No impacts on either the Severn or the immediate local environment were detected.

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A nice contrast to seemingly never-ending incidents was provided when I had the pleasure of opening some new easy access fishing facilities at Jay Farm, Leintwardine. Using money we receive from rod licence sales we worked with the owners to provide smooth paths and platforms over the pool which now allow everyone to make use of this lovely site.

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Children from the local primary school also came along to test the new facilities and take the opportunity to get some hands on experience of the watery wildlife, of which there was plenty!

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As a result of the frequent flooding of 2012 large amounts of debris and rubbish has built up on the River Stour just outside Kidderminster. Not only was it very unsightly it also raising the risk of flooding locally.

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So at the end of May we launched a major operation with Wyre Forest District Council to remove it and dispose of it properly. The full scale of the problem only became apparent when we started digging down into the debris. Tens of tonnes of wood and rubbish had been built up and it took all of our specialised kit to shift it. The task was made more hazardous and unpleasant by the presence of used syringes and bottles of urine. In the end it took three days to completely remove it all, sort it and send it for proper disposal.

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Our guys had a particularly tricky moment when they released a large branch and a human head bobbed to the surface. Fortunately, once they plucked up courage to have a closer look they found it belonged to a mannequin. Good job – dread to think what the paperwork would have been like if not!

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June

June (and indeed much of July and August) was completely dominated by one incident.

On the afternoon of 16th June a huge fire broke out at Lawrence Recycling in Kidderminster. The blaze was so big that the plume of smoke could be seen over 30 miles away and the intense heat even generated its own pyrocumulous clouds!

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Hereford and Worcester Fire and Rescue were on site very quickly and set about tackling the fire with large numbers of appliances and over eighty firefighters. The scale of the fire was enormous and involved many tonnes of processed waste, much of it plastic.

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During the night of 16th June and into the 17th large volumes of water were put onto the fire in an attempt both to extinguish it and prevent its spread to other parts of the huge buildings. Most of this water could not be contained and went into the surface water drains across the site. These drain directly into the Staffordshire and Worcestershire canal which is located immediately to the east of the recycling centre (photo below).

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Water used for firefighting is nasty stuff. When things like plastic burn they release chemicals which are picked up by the water. Some of these chemicals are toxic and others are very effective at stripping oxygen out of water. Not surprisingly we get very concerned when fire water escapes to the surrounding environment!

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In this case due to the intensity of the fire and the need to tackle it aggressively with large amounts of water it was not possible to contain it all on site. By the morning of 17th June we knew that several thousand gallons of contaminated water had entered the canal.

From the outfall point by the recycling plant, the canal flows south for about a mile and a half before entering Stourport Marina at York Lock. The marina then empties into the River Severn which is used to supply drinking water to millions of people.

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We immediately started a huge response which involved keeping the contaminated water in the stretch of canal and doing what we could to maintain reasonable water quality. We deployed many pumps at Stourport to oxygenate the water and rescued thousands of fish which were
becoming increasingly distressed.

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Unfortunately despite our best efforts many thousands of fish were killed. We did, however, prevent the escape of significant amounts of polluted water into the River Severn.

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Within a day or so we had worked with Hereford and Worcester Fire and Rescue to contain all the contaminated water on site so it no longer posed a threat to nearby watercourses.

The fire itself proved very difficult to put out. The sheer scale of it, coupled with the fact that the buildings within which it burned were severely damaged and dangerous, meant that it continued to smoulder well into August. Unfortunately this had a significant impact on those living and working nearby. Eventually the building had to be demolished and the burning waste pulled out and extinguished. A laborious, dangerous and expensive process.

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The good news is that a new owner for the site has now been found and a full clean up is almost complete.

July and August

It may feel a lifetime ago, but we did actually get a decent summer in 2013. July in particular was much warmer and sunnier than average, with a number of hot days thrown in. This followed on from a notably dry June.

By the end of July many of our rivers and lakes were showing the impacts of the prolonged dry and warm spell, spurring us into action once again. This time to try to save fish under immediate threat from the conditions.

The top of the River Teme, above Leintwardine, is prone to low flows in dry weather. By late July the hot and dry weather had taken its toll and for long stretches the River had run completely dry. Walking along the gravel bed is a very strange experience!

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The Teme supports very good populations of fish. As the River dries out the fish seek refuge in deeper water. The problem is that these deeper areas get cut off as the main River dries out. The sun and heat then gets to work on the pools, drying them out and reducing the oxygen levels. If left alone the fish will either die or taken by predators. To prevent this happening we launched a number of rescue operations.

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Our electro fishing teams get into the pools, stun and scoop up the fish and transfer them into large transportation tanks. They are then released at safe locations further downstream.

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During late July hundreds of mature fish were rescued, including some very fine salmon and trout specimens.

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Fishy problems weren’t confined to rivers, however, and as the hot weather continued we received increasing numbers of reports of fish dying and in distress in fishing lakes and parks.

By far the biggest incident happened at Pittville Park Lake in Cheltenham. A combination of an algal bloom, too many fish and a thunderstorm which churned up the sediment at the bottom, meant that oxygen levels fell very quickly.

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With the help of Cheltenham Borough Council (who own the lake) and Gloucestershire Fire and Rescue we managed to get more oxygen into parts of the lake using large hoses and aeration units. This created refuges where fish could congregate until oxygen levels could be stabilised naturally.

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As a result of our actions we managed to avoid a complete loss of all the fish in the lake and most of the very large specimen fish were saved. Unfortunately, however, despite our collective efforts, many thousand fish did perish.

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As cooler weather arrived in August, oxygen levels slowly returned to normal. Cheltenham Borough Council now have a long term management plan for the lake which, hopefully, will make a repeat of the incident less likely.

We are able to carry out big fish rescues like these as a result of the money we get from fishing licence sales. Buy yours here!

http://www.environment-agency.gov.uk/homeandleisure/recreation/fishing/31497.aspx

September

September gave us a short break from seemingly endless environmental incidents. So we used the time to practice for the next one!

We held a major exercise in Worcester for our operational staff. It offered the chance for some hands-on experience with our incident response kit. During major incidents we use staff from all parts of our business. This not only means we can deploy a lot of people very quickly, it also gives us good resilience during incidents which last for a long time. It does, however, mean that in order to ensure everyone has the right skills and experience we have to do a considerable amount of training.

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This exercise, imaginatively dubbed Exercise Canary (I’m not sure why!) was based around water pollution incidents and involved the use of fast tanks, above (used to contain contaminated water before it’s taken away for disposal), aeration kit, below (used to get oxygen quickly into water) and peroxide dosing equipment (also used to oxygenate water).
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September also saw us carry out some eradication work on a particularly nasty invasive plant. Creeping water primrose looks pretty innocuous but, in fact, represents a real threat to our waterways.

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Originating from South America it spreads very quickly, out-competing native flora. It can completely choke rivers and pools, making them inaccessible for navigation and increasing flood risk. In France and parts of the USA where it has become established millions of pounds is spent trying to control it.

Fortunately in the UK it is still very rare and we are very keen to keep it that way! We know of two locations where it is present in the Severn catchment. One is near Lydney in Gloucestershire and we spent several days during September searching for every plant, hand pulling them and destroying the remains.

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It may be several years before we can be sure it has been completely eradicated.

Non native and invasive species represent a real threat to our environment. Get involved in identifying and reporting them by downloading our fancy app. It really works!

http://planttracker.naturelocator.org

http://naturelocator.org/aquainvaders.html

October

Late October saw the first of the storms that were to dominate the news and my life for most of the rest of the year. The storm, named St Jude’s Storm, was well forecast several days in advance. It was the first in what became a conveyor belt of powerful storms from the Atlantic.

In preparation for the storm’s arrival we carried out a lot of work clearing minor blockages in watercourses and checking that all our defences were in good condition.

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As a precaution we installed a humongous generator at Kempsey flood defences, in case the storm disrupted the power supply of the pumps which keep the village dry.

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We also opened our incident room for the first time for several months to monitor the developing situation.

In the event the worst of the conditions missed us by about 50 miles to the south. However, the preparation put us in a good place for the coming months!

November

A brief window in the weather allowed us to progress a number of projects aimed at improving the health and quality of our rivers. Last year we spent over a million pounds, often in partnership with others (such as Rivers Trusts, Wildlife Trusts and local authorities) on such projects across the Wye and Severn catchments.

The Hoo Brook in Kidderminster is a tributary of the River Stour. Although water quality is good the lower stretches suffer from a lack of suitable fish breeding habitat. As a result fish populations aren’t as good as they should be.

To help we’ve created some on-line (connected to the Brook) pools. These will provide sheltered and shallow water where fish can breed and the baby fish can thrive before returning to the main Brook.
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The pools will also provide excellent habitat for other plants and wildlife and an attractive area for local residents and visitors to Spennells Valley Nature Reserve to enjoy.

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December

To say that things kicked off in December would be extreme understatement! They haven’t calmed down since.

The start of the month saw another big storm track down the North Sea. High winds, combined with low atmospheric pressure, pushed up sea levels. This surge of water coincided with high tides causing very big problems.

Once again the situation was very well forecast several days in advance allowing us to make preparations for the expected impacts.

You will probably picked up the fact that the East Coast isn’t on my manor! However, when we have major incidents (or likely major incidents) affecting only parts of the country we bolster local resources with experienced incident staff from other areas. So the day before the surge I threw a few things in a bag (including the yellow jacket) and headed East!

In the event a very serious situation developed, with a 2 metre surge on top of high tides hitting most of the East Coast. Coastal defences were battered and in some cases severely damaged. Over 1400 homes and businesses were flooded and critical infrastructure affected. In places sea levels were the highest ever recorded, exceeding the devastating floods of 1953 which killed 300 people and flooded 25,000 homes. It is a testament to new defences and multi-agency response that no one died as a result of flooding and over 800,000 homes were protected.

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I spent several days in Boston where, sadly, hundreds of homes flooded when the River Witham overtopped its defences in the middle of the town. My role was partly doing media interviews and partly community support (talking to flooded residents and offering what advice and support I could).

It’s a pretty sobering experience walking streets where every home has been flooded to a depth of two to three feet. I won’t forget my experience in Boston for a long time!

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I also witnessed the damage caused to our flood defences. Huge holes, tens of metres wide, had been punched in some flood banks (such as at the beautifully named Slippery Gowt, below). As I left for home the race was on to get these repaired before the next high tides.

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By the middle of the month wet weather was really setting in. A succession of rain-bearing low pressure systems, steered across the Atlantic by a strengthening jet stream, began clattering into the UK delivering copious amounts of rain.

Soil soon became saturated, runoff became increasingly rapid and our larger rivers began to fill. With little recovery time between rain bands, flooding soon became an issue across the Severn and Wye catchments.
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Flood defences started to go up as the Severn rose and our incident room in Tewkesbury opened on an almost permanent basis.
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For the second year running my Christmas was more about media interviews and tweeting than prezzies and turkey!
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So the year had turned and we found ourselves back at Upton where we started. The outlook was increasingly bleak – a series of powerful Atlantic storms, combined with exceptionally high tides and coastal surges. However, at the turn of the year we still didn’t know how bad things would get – but that’s next year’s story!
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