Getting a wiggle on: How ‘re-wiggling’ our rivers can save our countryside

For more than a century, rivers have been straightened. Now, however, meandering projects are going on across the country to encourage ecology, discourage flooding and store water.

Something is afoot in the river valleys of England. Even as farmers despair at Biblical rainfall, drowned crops and waterlogged pasture, there are projects across the country to liberate rivers and streams: allowing them to meander and spill onto floodplains, creating pools and riffles, their onward rush slowed by leaky dams.

For 150 years, rivers have been straightened, dredged and narrowed, usually to release land for cultivation or development. At Blenheim Palace in Oxfordshire, the River Dorn was long ago forced into a channel, speeding up the rate of water flow through the catchment and depositing silt into the famous SSSI Queen Pool.

Now, the river has been reconnected to natural floodplains, using leaky dams and punching cuts into the bank so water spills out and resumes its slower paleo course. Rachel Furness-Smith is Blenheim’s head of estates: ‘The water quality is much better,’ she observes, ‘and there is an abundance of improved ecology — seed re-awakening, new species, aquatic and birdlife.’

Timothy Coates is a director of the North East Cotswold Farmer Cluster, which includes Blenheim. The River Glyme runs through his farm into the Evenlode and thence into the Thames at Oxford, which has flooded badly this year. ‘Primarily, we are all about water,’ he explains, ‘re-wiggling rivers, restoring floodplains to manage flow and store water in the catchment.’

Further strategies include tree planting, moving arable production away from the river and rotating crops with livestock grazing to improve soil: ‘Healthy functioning soils are like a sponge, holding 222,000 litres of water per hectare, underground cathedrals providing water in dry seasons,’ marvels Mr Coates. ‘The way our climate is changing, it is crucial to get those areas of land into condition.’

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A turn for the better: A project to restore the ancient meanders and floodplains of the River Wylye in Wiltshire is expected to benefit a host of wildlife, such as the water vole and otter. Credit: Chris Lock/Alamy

The cluster qualified for payments under the Government’s Landscape Recovery Scheme and there are other potential sources of investment. ‘We are talking to asset owners such as Network Rail — there are 27 river crossings on the Cotswold line — and Thames Water about the value to them of flood-risk reduction and collecting data to tell the story of improved water quality,’ explains Mr Coates.

River meanders on neighbour Sam Parson’s land have willows planted on every corner to hold the bank: ‘The water is crystal clear, with lots of fish and otters,’ he observes. Meanwhile, Mr Coates has put in woodland, new hedgerows and regenerated scrub: natural capital that could attract private finance through carbon and biodiversity gain markets. There is an element of competition among landowners, admits cluster organiser Tim Field. ‘It’s a race to the top: who can capture the most carbon, hold the most water, see the most birds.’

In Lancashire’s Ribble Valley, leaky dams are all the rage. Made from branches and brash from coppiced woodland, they hold back water, allowing it to spread onto land and reducing serious flooding downstream. The village of Bolton-by-Bowland is prone to flooding after heavy rainfall, but dams installed on the Skirden River have been shown to delay peak flow by eight hours.

Jack Spees is director of the Ribble Rivers Trust, which in February this year netted a £25 million grant from the Environment Agency for flood defence. ‘Dams also prevent soil erosion and provide a fantastic habitat for fish and invertebrates,’ he says, ‘and the more you put in, the better. We will be upscaling with six new projects, installing hundreds of leaky dams. It’s about creating a balance between flood management and habitat.’

What do farmers think about encouraging flooding on their land? ‘It’s temporary storage of water and often on woodland,’ explains Mr Spees. ‘The aim is not to take land out of production — flooding can help to retain soil and you can see where the river has come up and left a fine sediment, promoting soil health.’

He is encouraging farmers to look at the value of Nature: ‘For example, a perennial rye-grass field is a bit of a desert; the best value would be to turn it into a hay meadow, calculate how much it is worth in biodiversity gain then sell credits to a project that has an adverse impact on Nature.’ A reclaimed saltmarsh on the Ribble estuary in Lancashire was estimated to be worth £1,450 per hectare in mitigating carbon emissions, more valuable than growing crops or grazing livestock.