Monday morning 4th August and the next phase in the restoration of a small Norfolk chalk-stream begins. 3.5 km in two months, all being well.
Last year we (the Norfolk Rivers Trust working with Cain BioEngineering) took on a similar length – 3.5 km of straight and over-wide channel and did our best to replicate in two months what would have taken hurricanes and beavers (if we had them) two hundred years. You’ll get the idea from these before and after pictures: we felled trees and used them to rebuild a more natural, meandering channel.
It sounds simple enough. But why bother? Over the centuries chalk streams have been straightened, deepened and widened: for milling, for navigation, to construct water-meadows (a 17th Century technique for boosting farm productivity by flooding the floodplain) or to make them into drains (a 20th century technique for boosting farm productivity by draining the floodplain). The cumulative impact of all this modification has been to change our chalk-streams from the naturally meandering rivers they once were into uniform, over-wide and over deep canals.
Using trees to rebuild the meandering, low-lying riverbanks that a chalk stream should flow within brings a host of improvements to the habitat and eco-system. In the restored channel the water flows more quickly. The swifter flows scour the bed of stream so that there is clean gravel instead of deep mud. The faster flows favour weeds like ranunculus and starwort which help maintain a cleaner river, and provide better habitat for fish and insects. Along the shallow, wet margins reeds and grasses flourish and these also provide habitat for insects, birds and mammals. Selectively felling trees helps too, especially in the sort of semi-commercial forestry that borders a lot of our rivers: the ideal is the dappled sunlight and shade you’d find in a natural, mature flood-plain wood.
Altogether this carefully choreographed imitation of a small hurricane can absolutely transform a chalk stream, as these photographs show. The changes illustrated here have taken less than a year to evolve. In five or ten years the woody banks will have disappeared beneath trapped silt and vegetation and flowing through the middle will be a smaller and much healthier river.