Green shoots of recovery on the River Chelt – and lots of them!

It’s just over a year since we finished an ambitious project to realign a section of the River Chelt in Gloucestershire to improve its habitat value and make it more accessible to fish. I’ve been back to have a look how things are working out.

The Project

The River Chelt is a small tributary of the Severn. It rises on the Cotswold escarpment near Dowdeswell, flows through the middle of Cheltenham and joins the Severn at Wainlodes. Over its short length it changes from steep fast-flowing brook to a slowly meandering small river.


The project was carried out about a mile from the Chelt’s confluence with the River Severn, just before it passes under the A38. The river had been significantly modified here to enable the operation of the now redundant Norton mill. It had been straightened to increase the flow velocity and a small weir installed (photo below). The weir presented a significant obstacle to fish trying to swim upstream, while the steep banks offered little opportunity for wetland plants and animals.


During September and October of 2011 we realigned the course of the river to bypass the weir and straightened length. We created a new, meandering river channel, which would have been much closer to its original form, and a range of bank slopes.


In bypassing the weir we opened up a further 6km of the river upstream to fish and a hectare of wetland habitat was created alongside the river.


However, as you know,you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs, and I have to confess things did look a bit like a building site when we’d finished.


What a difference a year makes

Our new section of river has received a number of good tests over the last year. Repeated bouts of summer and winter flooding through 2012 and 2013 resulted in some very large amounts of water being forced through the new channel and in some cases exceeding its capacity and spilling into its floodplain (as it was designed to do).

The speed of plant establishment and growth has been amazing. Not only have the many small trees we planted with the help of local volunteers settled in well, there is already a good variety of wetland plants along the course of the realigned river.


It’s also very pleasing to see the diversity of habitat developing within the river. Areas of gravel and stones on the river bed should provide good spawning opportunities for fish while fresh silt deposits will be great for feeding birds. Part of the old channel was retained and now provides and excellent refuge for fish and insects.


We’ll monitor the progress of the site over the coming years to see what species of plants, fish and birds move in, but the initial signs are very promising. Indeed, as if to prove the point, as we arrived a large egret which had been feeding along the river, flapped lazily away!


Part of a much bigger plan

Our work on the Chelt is just one of hundreds of projects across the country aimed at improving our rivers. It’s all part of the plans to deliver the objectives of the Water Framework Directive which requires us to improve the health of rivers.

We’ve identified where the condition of rivers isn’t as good as it should be and the causes of the problems. There is a variety of issues affecting our rivers: man-made alterations to their shape and form (like here on the Chelt), obstructions like weirs, pollution from single point sources, pollution from run-off of chemicals, soils and nutrients, low flows and the presence of alien species. We’re working with partners to develop long-term plans to tackle them all.

Discover more in our interactive presentation:


Gardening skills to help fish

On Tuesday 25th March representatives from eight angling clubs, from the Shrewsbury area and further afield, met on the River Roden north of Shrewsbury for a demonstration day of river habitat restoration techniques using large woody debris. The day was organised by Environment Agency Fisheries staff in conjunction with the Wild Trout Trust, with the aim of providing representatives from local angling clubs (and partners such as the Severn Rivers Trust) the opportunity to witness and take part in practical demonstrations of techniques, which they could then put to use in future back on their own stretches of river.


Despite the weather the day was a great success, with 19 attendees treated to demonstrations of various techniques such as pleaching (hinging) of hazel / alder / willow / hawthorn trees alongside the riverbank and also the introduction of brushwood structures to margins of river.

All techniques have the aim of creating dense cover for juvenile fish species. However, they also have the benefit of improving river bank protection by making it more resilient to erosion. Brushwood gathered from nearby coppicing work and recent storm damage was also utilised, whilst fixing methods included stakes and wire for bundles and also pinning trees with metal bars so they don’t dislodge form the riverbed.

The work will help to trap silt and clean the gravel on the river bed to provide improved trout spawning habitat.

More habitat days are planned on the River Frome in Gloucestershire and River Leadon in April, again organised by our Fisheries staff and led by the Wild Trout Trust.

Events like these are made possible by the money we receive from fishing licence sales, buy yours here.


Spawning salmon spotting in Shropshire

The River Onny is an important river for migratory Salmon, with numerous fish running the river to get to suitable spawning ground in the upper reaches.


To spawn salmon cut redds, which are shallow excavations in gravel beds, and lay their eggs at the tail end of the redds where the fertilised eggs can grow into alevins in the relative sanctuary of the deep gravel beds.


The simplest way to determine the amount of salmon that have run the river to spawn is to count the amount of redds that are cut over a set area and time period. This gives us a good idea of how strong the salmon run has been in any one year and therefore how this will relate to year class strength within the existing population.


On the stretch of the River Onny, from Stokesay to Onibury, that we surveyed last week 10 salmon redds were seen as well as a pair of salmon guarding a recently cut redd. Four dead cock fish and one dead hen fish were seen. This is all part of the natural life cycle as not all salmon make it back downstream due to exhaustion.


Elvering on the Severn Estuary

What are elvers?

They’re baby eels. Eels have a remarkable lifecycle which sees them travel thousands of miles across the Atlantic Ocean.


Spawning (egg laying) has never been observed, but it is believed to take place in the spring, deep in the Sargasso Sea, between Bermuda and the Bahamas. Maturing females are thought to contain up to 10 million eggs. The eggs develop into a ‘leaf-like’ larva called a ‘leptocephalus’ It was originally thought that these larvae took three years to migrate from the Sargasso Sea to the European coast but, recent studies suggest that the journey may take as little as 12 months.

When the larvae reach shallower water they change into what is called the ‘glass eel’ stage before continuing with their migration into river estuaries.

eellifecycleThey use the tidal currents to push them into our river systems, going upstream on the flood tide. During the ebb tide they move out of the current towards the bank side to prevent being washed back out to sea. As the water warms during the late Spring, glass eels start to develop pigmentation and become strong swimmers. At this stage they look like miniature adult eels and are referred to as elvers.


Male eel stay in freshwater for between 7 and 12 years, maturing at an average length of about 36cm. Females stay between 9 to 20 years and mature at a larger average size of about 50cm, though eel can grow larger reaching up to 1 metre in length and live as long as 40 years.


When the fish mature they change to a blue/silvery colour and migrate seaward during the autumn, usually during dark stormy nights.

Population collapse

The European Eel is a critically endangered species. Since the 1970s, the numbers of eels reaching Europe is thought to have declined by over 90%. The exact reasons for the catastrophic decline are unknown but probably include: overfishing, parasites, barriers to migration such as weirs and natural changes in the North Atlantic currents


Elver fishing

There is a very long history of fishing for elvers in the Severn Estuary. It’s important to the local culture and also makes a contribution to the local economy. The wholesale value of elvers has risen dramatically from around 50p a kilo in the 1980’s to anything up to £500 a kilo now. There are about 3000 elvers in a kilo. Prices fluctuate greatly depending on demand and the number of elvers about.

CaptureFishermen sell their catch to elver traders in the UK, who then sell them on for restocking fish farms and fisheries across Europe. Under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) regulations, it is now illegal to export European elver outside the Continent.

Regulating elver fishing

If you want to fish for elvers you need a special permit from us.

Details here

Last year we sold over 200 elver dip net licences on the Severn Estuary.
Because eels are so endangered and due to the potential financial benefits of catching large numbers of elvers we try to strike a balance between allowing fishing and protecting the vulnerable population.

Our permits put restrictions on the equipment you are allowed to use and how and where they are used. This limits the numbers of elvers it’s possible to catch while allowing fishing to continue.

Most elver fishermen are law abiding. Some are not! During the elver season ( from February to May) we devote a lot of effort to detecting and tackling illegal fishing activity. We have a dedicated team of fisheries enforcement staff who are fully warranted and equipped to carry this out.

photo (5)

We also have some sophisticated kit, such as night vision headsets and cameras, sonar equipment and high- powered boats, to help us track down the guilty. Last year we successfully prosecuted 10 people at magistrates courts for illegal elver fishing on the Severn Estuary.

We also have the power to seize equipment that we suspect to be illegal or being used to carry out illegal activity. In the past, in addition to fishing equipment, we’ve seized and impounded boats, cars and vans!


The elver season is now well underway and we’re out and about most nights.