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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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: http://www.informsystem.com/livingwaters/livingwaters.htm

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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. http://bit.ly/Y0g6pO

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An underground river

Parts of the River Frome in Gloucestershire have dried out completely in the last couple of weeks. We’ve had a few reports from people concerned about what’s caused it and whether it will return to its former glory. Here are some answers.

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Not all of the river is affected, but a fair stretch to the east of Stroud, in the Frampton Mansell area is now completely dry.

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The drying out is a completely natural phenomenon. It happens most years, and is the result of the local geology.

The River Frome flows over highly permeable (porous) rock formations such as limestone and sandstones which also make up the principal aquifers in the Stroud area. Aquifers are underground water reserves, bound up within rock formations. Also, in its upper reaches, the River is mainly groundwater fed. As the groundwater table declines in dry periods below the bed of the river it experiences the drying out episodes which we are seeing now. Any flowing water is now beneath the surface! Extensive faulting (cracks and gaps in the rocks) in the area also locally contributes to losses of river water into the underlying bedrock via these features.

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When we get some rain the groundwater level will rise back to the surface and the River will reappear.

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Because the process happens quite slowly fish and insects tend to naturally move away from the drying area and then return once flows return.

Measuring progress on the Horsbere Brook

Our fishery folk have been out on the Horsebere Brook in Gloucester undertaking an electro-fishing survey as part of our Fisheries and Biodiversity investigation programme. This was following work at Brockworth, between Mill Lane and the A46, to help address some of the issues that affect habitat quality and wildlife in the brook.

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The project manager, Cathy Beeching also invited members of the community and three Brook Wardens were able to attend.

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The brook is classified as poor overall for fish, under the Water Framework Directive, due to a lack of some fish species you’d expect to find such as bullhead and brown trout. This is partly because the shape of the river, and its banks, has been changed from their natural state over the years. Channel straightening, man-made banks, tipped rubbish and rubble have all reduced space for water and wildlife. Although the Horsebere Brook is a naturally active and changing watercourse, erosion and siltation has been exacerbated by water running quickly off neighbouring hard urban areas.

At the three survey locations, some eels, perch and roach fry were caught.

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Even two brown trout were found upstream of the habitat restoration site, showing a welcome improvement in fish species.

What were the Improvement Works?

As part of the Environment Agency led improvement works last summer we restored two cut off meanders. This lengthened the brook and created more habitat. One meander bypassed a section of concrete channel, which had scoured out a deep drop in the river bed and blocked fish movement.

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We also worked with Severn Trent Water to replace two failed and unsightly Storm Water Outfalls. The headwalls, which form the pipe outlet, were set a little further back from the bank, and constructed with more natural materials, to help them blend into the environment and reduce the speed of water entering the brook. At the same time the opportunity was taken to scoop out the river bank to restore a natural profile and wetland edge, and improve views and access to the brook, including more space for water in high flows.

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These interventions complemented an ongoing programme of improvements by the local community, with the Parish Council and Severn Vale Housing and Tewkesbury Borough Council, to stop fly tipping, and enhance the brook.

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We hope that all the volunteers who have planted trees, picked litter, maintained paths and made brushwood bundles for the restoration works will welcome the improving diversity of wildlife in this important urban brook.

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