How to improve a stretch of river

Ursula Cholmeley explains how she's reinvigorated a stretch of river.

If you look out from any of the high points of the garden here at Easton in Lincolnshire, you can see that the sweep of parkland embraces ancient pastureland, wonky mature trees and old walls. Running through the middle is the young River Witham (actually more of a stream for most of the year). Once a much bigger beast, the river has shaped the landscape over thousands of years and created an undulating valley an inspiring and beautiful location for the original medieval garden.

In the Tudor or Jacobean period, the river was turned from its original course, close up against the snowdrop bank, moved to the other side of the valley floor and canalised for about a third of a mile.

Downstream, a weir was built and part of the canal became a flat pool, reflecting the house on the terraces above. Due to the demolition of the house and a lack of maintenance to the grounds in the second half of the 20th century, the dam collapsed, the river shrank and cattle damaged the banks.

For the past decade or so, the ‘problem’ of the river has been on my mind. It had become silted up, reeds rampaged through the boggy ground and it was prone to flooding. Despite our patient annual requests, the Environment Agency had bigger priorities. Then, last year, it joined forces with the Wild Trout Trust to help us create a haven for small trout, bullheads, kingfishers, mayfly and native crayfish. It’s a minor miracle that has allowed us to create an ecological sanctuary without compromising a long history
of horticulture here.

When the funding came through from the Water Framework Directive, with additional support from rod-licence money, work began in the park. With the help of mechanical diggers, we were able to pile reeds onto the banks and a watery path appeared through the vegetation.

By way of a small diversion from the point, diggers are one of the joys of making a garden and, if you can think of any excuse to hire a mini-digger this winter, then do. Every man I know loves digging ponds or landscaping. Every man I know has also put the digger bucket through a water pipe, so you might like to factor a visit from the plumber into your budget. Electricity cables can be a more serious hazard.

Within the gardens, even mini-diggers were out of the question, so the team came armed with waders and faggots. Faggots are bundles of coppiced wood that are staked horizontally along the edge of the stream and act like semi-porous sandbags. Silt is lifted out of the riverbed and stacked behind the line. The bundles are placed at varying angles to the flow, allowing its speed to be manipulated.

In slow areas, vegetation provides sanctuary for small critters and helps prevent flooding. Faster water cleans the gravel of silt, increases oxygen and provides spawning grounds for trout. There are signs of success: six trout redds were recorded in the river last winter.

The movement of birds enhances every winter garden and having any type of clear water is the easiest way to encourage them on to your patch as they go about the serious business of staying alive in cold weather. For us, that means noisy wrens among the reeds and grey wagtails at the water’s edge.

Occasionally, a piercing cheep and a flash of iridescent blue marks the kingfisher’s indignant departure from his feeding post. Thrushes and blackbirds use shallow areas for bathing and, when the ground freezes, flowing water is a lifeline for thirsty birds of all sizes.

Our new-look river has also improved the gardens’ design. Delineation provided by the faggots means the native reeds and herb-age look tidier. On the eastern side, increased depth of water in a narrower channel has allowed sharp edges to be cut and the lawns can be mown to the water’s edge. New areas have been opened up for possible marginal planting, but caution is required. If, as here, a water feature is part of the river system, it is important not to introduce the wrong species. The spread of Himalayan balsam on other waterways is a salutary reminder of our obligations.


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