Giving Tuesday was created in 2012 and has now grown into an international movement that is embedded on the social calendar annually, with the simple idea of doing good.
What better way is there to do that than make a donation on Giving Tuesday (28th November 2023) or instead of a physical present this festive season, to help protect rivers – our very lifeblood?
While there are many great causes, one that underpins our very existence – water – is hard to ignore.
Much of our drinking water is abstracted from rivers, supplementing what is stored in reservoirs to supply the needs of our homes and businesses.
However, in the South East we live in an area that is classed as water-stressed. This means that we are already facing a water shortage because of a growing population and climate change, which brings with it erratic weather patterns, from sudden storms from which we can’t capture all the water to drought.
All this puts huge pressure on the wildlife that thrives in rivers. Your rivers. Rivers that have been straightened, boxed in by concrete or boarding along the edges thwarting animal movement between water and land, or restricted by weirs and other barriers – all in the name of convenience for people at various times in our history.
But this has left our rivers unable to function as they should, to allow fish to migrate (some as far as the sea) to better habitats, to allow flowers to flourish to attract pollinators, or to give creatures that move between water and land the chance to do so.
The very habitats that support the wildlife that supports our existence needs help – and we’re on a mission to make that happen.
However, we can’t install fish passes or ‘rewiggle’ rivers to make them places where aquatic life can truly thrive without funding.
By the end of November, many people are already making decisions about gifts for the festive season. Many of you might be tempted by offers on Black Friday weekend (23rd to 27th November). But many of you might be thinking that a gift to nature might be better for your recipients for Christmas-time festivities this year – a year in which we have made inroads in many areas.
Some highlights from this year include:
encouraging people in the Medway to take a first step to caring for their local river by addressing their reliance on single-use plastic – 70 people signed up to become official Medway River Guardians with many of them becoming River Champions.
working with landowners in the Beult to install nature-based solutions to retain back water in the landscape for the benefit of wildlife and people. We’re now building up similar work on the Darent
Dozens of volunteers made a huge difference to the River Wandle during Wandle Fortnight (11th-24th September), carrying out restoration or learning to record invasive species across the catchment.
Firstly, about 40 volunteers in total worked across five days at Morden Hall Park, continuing our on-going work along this section of the Wandle at the National Trust site.
In a separate event, we also trained more than 20 people how to spot invasive non-native species (INNS) so they could go out during the Fortnight and record their presence using an App, to inform our catchment work.
These two events were intrinsically linked: when we take volunteers to continue our Morden Hall Park work twice a year in autumn and spring, the first task is to remove floating pennywort. This invasive plant is regularly seen across other parts of the Wandle and was one of the top types of INNS our volunteers were trained to record.
We also took the opportunity of Wandle Fortnight to schedule an event to talk to residents about a weir lowering project.
The problems with pennywort
Like many invasive species, the pennywort might look colourful, but this fast-growing plant crowds out native plants, takes oxygen from fish and insects and cuts out light, inhibiting aquatic wildlife. At Morden Hall, the removed pennywort is composted by the National Trust. It can form a big mat, meaning volunteers drag this a short distance to a boat or suitable exit place for it to be lifted out of the water.
If pennywort is left to decay in the river, the bottom of slow moving sections as useful river channel for wildlife, depleting oxygen levels as it breaks down. This further serves to prevent many invertebrates and other species from completing their life cycles, reducing biodiversity.
Once we removed the pennywort, volunteers then turned their efforts to installing four more deflectors – large pieces of wood – and creating three more berms along the banks at Morden Hall, completing the current round of work, funded by the Environment Agency, we have been doing there since 2020.
Watch volunteers work on a berm
Manoeuvring the deflectors and putting stakes in to keep them in place is tough physical work, but the benefits are huge as we change a once-straight river into a meandering channel where the flow is much more varied. These large tree chunks, cut down as part of woodlands management by the National Trust, help to clean gravels and create pools behind them, providing areas where fish can spawn and thrive.
The berms, which are built as an extension of the sides of the river, are made of brash. Volunteers planted them with sedge species that work best in shady areas. These plants were mostly relocated from the wetlands and help to filter out pollutants and excess nutrients while providing habitats for invertebrates. Golden flag iris was one plant inserted into these berms. Volunteers, many of whom have returned after previous sessions, could see the vegetation from previous efforts providing nourishment for nature.
Project officer Harry Clarke said: “The twice-yearly efforts by volunteers at Morden Hall Park are really starting to bear fruit and be visible. Now we can see moor hens, herons and ducks regularly making the most of the benefits of a narrower river channel and much more vegetation along the banks.”
The flow of the river now has a much more meandering course as a result of our work over the past few years – and our video shows the results.
Training volunteers to help us map invasive plants
Our INNS training session at Sutton Ecology Centre was attended by 22 people, who learned about various plant species that do harm to our rivers. Newly educated, they were empowered to carry out surveys on walks alongside rivers, starting in Wandle Fortnight. They have until the end of October to record them on an . The data these citizen scientists collect will help us – as catchment partnership hosts for the Wandle – form plans to tackle INNS on the entire river network in the future.
While floating pennywort, Giant Hogsweed and Himalayan Balsam might be best known and the most common invasive fauna on our rivers, volunteers were also trained to look out for Japanese knotweed, parrots feather, New Zealand pygmy weed and giant rhubarb.
Japanese knotweed, introduced to the UK in the mid-1800s, is known to be along the river at Poulter’s Park. Emerging in March, it can grow at 5-10cm a day and easily displace native vegetation. Dying back in winter, it leaves bare soil which, if washed out, can spread downstream. Where large stands of the plant persist on river banks there is an increased sediment input into the river. In slow moving waters this silt will accumulate and smother the riverbed, rendering the habitat unsuitable for fish spawning.
We asked volunteers to survey for giant rhubarb (gunnera tinctoria) for the first time, because it has been found in other parts of the UK. Giant rhubarb is an ornamental plant originally found in Chile and Argentina which thrives in streams or roadsides, liking damp conditions.
This plant’s wide leaf span and large dense stands can have a dramatic impact on the local biodiversity by excluding light. On rivers it causes erosion to banks, exposing them to fast running water after die-back in winter. Identified as a non-native invasive species, it is illegal to knowingly allow it to spread outside a property.
Parrots feather’s rapid growth means it quickly outcompetes native vegetation, forming mats and blocking sunlight and depleting oxygen levels for river wildlife. Left to spread in the wild we’re likely to see an increasing area of land lost to grazing as well as significant impacts on our biodiversity and road-side drains.
Similarly, New Zealand pigmy weed likes garden ponds. It also harms the growth of native vegetation in rivers forming a dense mat and reducing food, shelter and refuge for aquatic species.
Rachael Edwards, Volunteer Officer for SERT, said: “The efforts of volunteers as they walk along riverbanks looking for these species will really have a big impact on the action plan we, as hosts of the Wandle catchment partnership, can put together to tackle INNS for many years to come. We will then be able to focus our efforts on problem areas and know where, for example, to focus our efforts for our popular ‘balsam bashes’.”
Explaining the Goat Bridge weir project
One of our last events in Wandle Fortnight was to talk to residents about a project to lower the weir at Goat Bridge and make changes to the river channel, improving a section at Mitcham for wildlife.
Nearly 30 people attended our community event where partners from Thames Water, the London Borough of Sutton, the Environment Agency and engineering consultancy Mott MacDonald explained the project at a nearby community centre and by conducting tours of the area.
The key reason for lowering the weir and installing rock ramps and bed check weirs is to make this part of the Wandle passable for fish. At present it is totally impassible.
Currently, the weir leaves about a 500m section of the River Wande with conditions akin to a lake, as opposed to a flowing river.
Work on the project is scheduled to begin later this autumn.
Full details about the project and its benefits to the river can be found on our dedicated web page.
Our video shows how the weir at Goat Bridge creates a barrier to fish passage.
As our PROWATER project comes to an end, Kathi Bauer, our Senior Natural Capital Officer, reports on the importance of working together using nature-based solutions to retain water in the landscape, protecting rivers and communities from the effects of climate change.
The results of our work, carried out over the past four years, will help retain 24 Olympic sized swimming pools worth of water in the catchment each year – and that’s just on a small section of the landscape.
Water scarcity is an issue we need to address now
Back in 2018, when PROWATER first started, a summer drought was putting pressure on water resources and nature. Then, we thought this was a timely reminder of how vulnerable our freshwater systems are to climate change and the need to address this challenge for people and wildlife.
Little did we know that, four years later, we would experience the driest July in England since 1935, with temperatures reaching 40°C for the first time. Almost the entire country had hosepipe bans imposed. Many rivers recorded the lowest flows ever seen – and it was even reported that the source of the Thames dried up.
PROWATER – Protecting and Restoring Raw Water Sources Through Actions at the Landscape Scale – set out to demonstrate how nature-based solutions (NbS) can replenish water resources at a catchment scale. These NbS included wetland restoration and changes to rural land management.
In the four years since the project started, the South East Rivers Trust has worked with:
three water companies
It has delivered:
2 headwater wetland restoration sites
16 hectares of improved soil management
supported 8.4 ha of chalk grassland and heathland restoration
Together, these measures will help retain more than 60 million litres of water (enough to fill 24 Olympic sized swimming pools) in the catchments every year through slower release to the river and improved recharge to the groundwater aquifers.
The 2022 drought proved a valuable stress test for these measures, but also brought home the crucial importance of scaling up our efforts to restore catchments in order to protect rivers, wildlife, and our own need for water.
Finding the right solutions for our catchments
As with any restoration effort, a key question was how this work could be funded. Public funding – mainly through agri-environment schemes – was set to change after Brexit, while private markets were only just starting to investigate how natural capital should sit alongside their regular balance sheets.
We worked in partnership with others to develop an evidenced base and demonstration site in the following areas
Friston Forest, part of the Eastbourne Chalk aquifer in the Cuckmere catchment and a focus area for project partner South East Water where chalk grassland and chalk heathland were restored
The Little Stour, where we supported Kent County Council and the Kentish Stour Countryside Partnership to improve soil health of farms. By doing this, we enhanced water replenishment of the chalk aquifer that feeds this chalk stream. This work included using cover and companion crops and an innovative rotational grazing trial on a stud farm.
We in particular focused on the River Beult, a tributary of the Medway, which feeds an important abstraction point supplying Bewl Water. This in turn provides water to large areas of Kent. The River Beult is a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) – the only riverine SSSI in Kent – but is heavily degraded because of historic modifications, including drainage and dredging. Less than 5% of its area remains as wetland habitat – an important natural feature that would have been historically much more common.
Working together to demonstrate how nature-based solutions can be delivered
Using mapping methods developed in PROWATER, we were able to target locations of potential headwater wetland areas, which, once restored, would help the river hold on to water for longer over the course of a year. Kent Wildlife Trust’s Upper Beult Farm Cluster officer helped us contact relevant landowners, leading us to visit Moat Farm, in the headwaters of the catchment, and Pullen Barn Farm, at the start of the High Halden tributary to the Upper Beult. On Pullen Barn Farm, we worked with owner Hugh Richards to trial introducing more species-rich pastures in his livestock system, as reported on a previous blog.
Moat Farm proved to be the perfect demonstration site for a new approach to restoration, focusing on process-based interventions with natural materials from the site. Landowners Mike and Jan Bax were crucial enablers, sharing our vision for the site: to demonstrate how wetland and stream restoration could look in the Upper Beult and make it a viable option for farmers and landowners.
The multi-year nature of the project allowed us to understand the opportunities on the site and build a strong relationship with Mike and Jan, and also the wider farmer cluster, facilitated by the welcoming partnership approach Kent Wildlife Trust took.
At Streetend Wood, one of two wetland restoration sites on Moat Farm, work started in February 2021. We took down some trees, before bird nesting season, to use as material for delivery of the main works in July. In November 2021, the site started wetting up before entering a long, dry period. However, throughout the drought, vegetation stayed lush and some standing water was present until September 2022, providing refuge for wildlife.
From demonstration site to catchment-scale restoration
While we are really proud of what we have delivered here, we know it is nowhere near enough. Our catchment-focused natural capital mapping, building on the WaterSystem Maps developed by the University of Antwerp, has helped us identify 5,000 ha of potential wetland habitats in headwaters and along the stream network in the Beult alone. If we really want to make a difference to our rivers, then we urgently need to grab hold of these opportunities.
So, how do we make this happen?
The answer, really, is simple: money. Most landowners will not be willing to engage with environmental schemes that have a detrimental impact on their business. While there are a number of positive, valuable options available under existing and new stewardship schemes that support farming with nature, we must go further than cover crops and two metre buffer strips.
We want to deliver on the vision of the Beult that we built over the course of the last few years and create a wetter, wilder and more diverse landscape where the river has space to thrive. We are also helping communities by slowing release of water into the river, from which water supply for the area is abstracted.
This comes with uncertainty, long-term land use change and unknown costs and activities that need to be built into schemes. We know that public funding can’t deliver on ambitions like this fully. The Green Finance Institute’s Finance Gap for Nature Report estimated that in order to deliver on the targets set by government, for example, we have a gap of £8bn funding committed to reach clean water-related targets alone.
Pilots show value for further funding
Our PROWATER Test & Trial, a sub-project of PROWATER delivered as part of Defra’s work to investigate how future government funded agri-environment schemes can support landscape-scale nature recovery, looked at how we could set payment rates that worked for farmers, and combine private funding (such as from water companies) with public money.
One barrier is the way that water company funding is regulated and its five-year cycle, among other issues. On a regional scale, for example, very few nature-based and catchment options have made it into the regional water resource plan. This is partly because of how difficult it is to model and quantify the cost-benefits of NbS on water supply.
Key to unlocking this will be piloting schemes at a larger scale and developing a shared ambition and understanding of drivers and barriers within the water industry. Then, using these schemes to develop new approaches to assessing, valuing, and integrating nature-based and catchment options into water company business plans.
Building on the work at Moat Farm, we are working with nearby landowners to co-develop a plan to restore and protect 18ha of riparian and headwater wetlands along 2.5km of the Upper Beult.
Further afield, across other catchments in the south east, we are using the mapping developed as part of PROWATER to understand the natural assets in the catchment, how they contribute to resilient water supply, and where opportunities are for restoration. Developing this with water company partners (Southern Water and Affinity Water), we are building a shared evidence base of these habitat features and why they are important to protect. This will help us – and them – make decisions about how and where to invest funding and to understand the scale of investment needed and impact possible.
A crucial component is developing payment schemes for landowners that reflect the benefit they are providing to the water company and enable us to deliver value for money to both. There are a lot of challenges, but the most exciting and promising part of this project is that everyone involved sees the opportunity it offers and treats it as a way of learning how we can make this work – together.
PROWATER was funded through the European Regional Development Fund, with additional support from Southern Water, South East Water, Kent County Council, Defra and the Patsy Wood Trust.
Come and join the South East Rivers Trust and partners for a fun-packed series of events to improve the health of the River Loddon.
During Loddon Rivers Week, running between Monday 26th September and Sunday 2nd October, there’s something for everyone, whether it is joining in guided walks or donning waders and taking positive action via restoration work in rivers across several parts of the catchment.
You’ll need to sign up for all activities in advance on our events page or via the contact details below.