Conservation Corner

John Bailey

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Ranunculus

I quite frequently receive emails that demand a reply in some depth, and I feel might be of interest to us all. These are generally conservation-focused, and the one I recently received from John Drewett is a case in point. John asked if I had any clue as to why the glorious weed that we all love, ranunculus, seems to be disappearing from so many of our rivers. What's not to like about ranunculus? All our river species adore it. It is a beautiful part of the UK summer riverine scene. It harbours endless amounts of food for our fish, and gives them shade and protection. And yes, it is disappearing fast.

All manner of expensive research has been done into this phenomenon, but could I suggest the reasons are easy and cheap to see? In fact, my great friend Tim Aldiss proved how to save ranunculus along his stretch of river by the simple use of some chicken wire and some stakes. Tim, like Mr Drewett, was shocked by the decline of his ranunculus stocks, and decided to fence off two living areas of weed that still had roots and looked like they could survive given protection. So, very easily, Tim gave them protection and the two ranunculus beds flourished.

But what did the ranunculus beds need protection from, you ask? CANOES and SWANS. Easy as that. Tim's stretch of Wensum, the river in point, has been bombarded by canoes these three years past, whilst the number of swans has grown to plague proportions. What weed that has not been grubbed up by paddlers has been eaten by flotillas of swans. The ranunculus has not stood a chance, simple as that. With swans and canoeists excluded by the chicken wire, the ranunculus recovered and flourished, good as new. This was a silver bullet solution, and the obvious answer to the two relatively new scourges our rivers face.

We are not just talking about the Wensum, of course. The number of canoes on the Wye has grown year on year, as has the wholly unchecked number of swans. On many a summer's day, it can be hard to fish because great clumps of ranunculus come drifting down river, uprooted upstream by man and bird. Canoe activities are unchecked and hugely destructive, and swan populations are no longer kept to reasonable proportions by river keepers. Until both these factors are discussed and dealt with, our ranunculus beds will continue to disappear.

Or, of course, we could adopt Tim's reasonable, sensible, relatively cheap solution to the problem. But I would not advise that. When the Environment Agency stumbled on what Tim was doing, rather than praising him, they immediately ordered him to take the fences down. Perhaps a simple solution is not what the scientists are looking for any more?
 

loxie

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Ranunculus

I quite frequently receive emails that demand a reply in some depth, and I feel might be of interest to us all. These are generally conservation-focused, and the one I recently received from John Drewett is a case in point. John asked if I had any clue as to why the glorious weed that we all love, ranunculus, seems to be disappearing from so many of our rivers. What's not to like about ranunculus? All our river species adore it. It is a beautiful part of the UK summer riverine scene. It harbours endless amounts of food for our fish, and gives them shade and protection. And yes, it is disappearing fast.

All manner of expensive research has been done into this phenomenon, but could I suggest the reasons are easy and cheap to see? In fact, my great friend Tim Aldiss proved how to save ranunculus along his stretch of river by the simple use of some chicken wire and some stakes. Tim, like Mr Drewett, was shocked by the decline of his ranunculus stocks, and decided to fence off two living areas of weed that still had roots and looked like they could survive given protection. So, very easily, Tim gave them protection and the two ranunculus beds flourished.

But what did the ranunculus beds need protection from, you ask? CANOES and SWANS. Easy as that. Tim's stretch of Wensum, the river in point, has been bombarded by canoes these three years past, whilst the number of swans has grown to plague proportions. What weed that has not been grubbed up by paddlers has been eaten by flotillas of swans. The ranunculus has not stood a chance, simple as that. With swans and canoeists excluded by the chicken wire, the ranunculus recovered and flourished, good as new. This was a silver bullet solution, and the obvious answer to the two relatively new scourges our rivers face.

We are not just talking about the Wensum, of course. The number of canoes on the Wye has grown year on year, as has the wholly unchecked number of swans. On many a summer's day, it can be hard to fish because great clumps of ranunculus come drifting down river, uprooted upstream by man and bird. Canoe activities are unchecked and hugely destructive, and swan populations are no longer kept to reasonable proportions by river keepers. Until both these factors are discussed and dealt with, our ranunculus beds will continue to disappear.

Or, of course, we could adopt Tim's reasonable, sensible, relatively cheap solution to the problem. But I would not advise that. When the Environment Agency stumbled on what Tim was doing, rather than praising him, they immediately ordered him to take the fences down. Perhaps a simple solution is not what the scientists are looking for any more?
The EA are not fit for purpose and we really should campaign to get rid of them and give our rivers an organisation that can actually give them the protection they need.

Eat the swans and ban canoes from sensitive rivers.
 

John Bailey

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Ranunculus

A fascinating debate this one, and a deep thank you to those taking part.

Floods, on the one hand, and low flows, on the other, are two issues I did not pay full attention to. I am reading Green and Prosperous Land: A Blueprint for Rescuing the British Countryside by Dieter Helm again at the moment, and he stresses the damage done by flash floods around the upland sources of rivers. A similar strand was seen on Countryfile a few weeks back where attempts were being made to control run-off rates. So, yes, point taken. Many years of bad land management upriver have a lot to answer for.

Equally, I was taken aback last year when I visited the Lea after a gap of a few seasons. The river was narrowed, the flow was low (despite recent rain), the silt appeared thicker and more widespread, and “good” weed was all but absent. As Feargal Sharkey has made clear, most of the water in the Lea comes from the sewage farm at Luton, so perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised by what I saw there.

So, whilst there is no silver bullet nationwide, fencing still worked 100% for my pal on the Wensum, so it can be seen as a godsend for ranunculus lovers in some, if not many situations.
 

BobP

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Low flows are a prime cause of the poor Ranunculus growth. It needs a current flow of round 1 metre per second to thrive. Next cause is the high level of nutrients, principally Phosphates, that kicks off algal growth which coats the Ranunculus in brown slime and effectively kills it. Phosphates come from dishwashers and washing machines, so if any of you have those appliances then you are part of the problem. The consent standards for the amount of P in STW discharges has been historically far too high at 2ppm unless there is a P stripper installed which brings it down to about 1 ppm which is still too high.

A further part of the problem is that P is very persistent. It does not float about in the water column, but locks into the bottom sediments where it remains unused until there is some disturbance of the sediments. This releases P into the water column again where some of it is used to kick off the algal growth. I once heard someone say that if we stopped using P and were able to get the discharge consent down below 0.6ppm it would still take at least 30 years to get rid of what is already out in the system.

The Centre for Ecology and Hydrology did a lot of work on this about 15 years ago in conjunction with the EA as part of the Kennet & Pang Fisheries Action Plan which I had a lot to do with. Anyone interested could contact CEH at Wallingford. I'm sure they would only be too happy to point you in the right direction.
 
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bobmiddlepoint

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I'm a bit surprised to hear that canoeist dig out lots of ranunculus but then I've not fished rivers with many paddlers. Swans on the other hand can strip miles of river clear of weed in just a few weeks. On the lower Frome some springs there would be a plague of swans (200+ over 3 or 4 miles of river) and they would eat the whole lot down and effectively clear the river of weed for the year. This drops the river level by 18" and leaves no cover for fish. Swans, far far worse than cormorants!


Andy
 

glueman

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I'm a bit surprised to hear that canoeist dig out lots of ranunculus but then I've not fished rivers with many paddlers. Swans on the other hand can strip miles of river clear of weed in just a few weeks. On the lower Frome some springs there would be a plague of swans (200+ over 3 or 4 miles of river) and they would eat the whole lot down and effectively clear the river of weed for the year. This drops the river level by 18" and leaves no cover for fish. Swans, far far worse than cormorants!


Andy
How can swans be worse than cormorants they do not eat fish. To my mind your idea of conservation is as long as you can fish sod all other animals,birds etc
 

vital

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My fishing buddy and I have been RMI volunteers for a few years, checking two sites on the River Meon in Hampshire. We've had ranunculus die back due to a combination of low flows and hot weather, but have also experienced young cattle eating several huge ranunculus beds, coincidentally when flows were low, but haven't experienced Swans eating it on our sites, in fact we rarely see Swans in that part of the Meon valley. As BobP said, flow is a critical factor, and it is a matter of record that the Meon, like many others, suffers badly at the hands of over abstraction, we should point the finger at the EA's "do very little, we don't want to upset our masters" attitude. Safe!
 

bobmiddlepoint

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How can swans be worse than cormorants they do not eat fish. To my mind your idea of conservation is as long as you can fish sod all other animals,birds etc

They are worse because in a chalkstream they can and do strip out all the weed cover. This leaves the fish exposed to predators as well as reducing invert numbers.

You could not be more wrong with your second point!

Andy
 

glueman

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Fish survived before, swans have been on the earth since heaven knows when, man overstocks rivers and ponds with wild life's food then complains when they eat it. Strange attitude
 

bobmiddlepoint

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Fish survived before, swans have been on the earth since heaven knows when, man overstocks rivers and ponds with wild life's food then complains when they eat it. Strange attitude

Swan numbers in some areas are very much higher now than they were forty years ago. They were probably lower than they should have been and that was partly down to anglers lead shot and the banning of that was a good thing.

But the fact remains that high swan numbers do have a huge impact on weed in some situations. 200 swans overwintering on three or four miles of river is too many. I saw the effect they can have several seasons on the Frome. They stripped out all weed in the shallower sections. It wasn’t low flow causing the weed to fail as it all went missing in late winter/early spring - and you could watch the swans eating it!

BTW the lower Frome below the trout beats isn’t stocked at all and is not a particularly good trout river. It is however a good mixed fishery with pike, grayling, dace, roach, sea trout and salmon. All of these suffered from the lack of weed cover.

Andy
 

JohnH

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I have also seen the destruction of ranunculus as bobmiddlepoint describes, arising from large swan numbers, on the Wiltshire Avon and the middle Wylye.
 

BobP

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My fishing buddy and I have been RMI volunteers for a few years, checking two sites on the River Meon in Hampshire. We've had ranunculus die back due to a combination of low flows and hot weather, but have also experienced young cattle eating several huge ranunculus beds, coincidentally when flows were low, but haven't experienced Swans eating it on our sites, in fact we rarely see Swans in that part of the Meon valley. As BobP said, flow is a critical factor, and it is a matter of record that the Meon, like many others, suffers badly at the hands of over abstraction, we should point the finger at the EA's "do very little, we don't want to upset our masters" attitude. Safe!

You were doing well up until the end point, then it all went wrong.

The EA don't abstract water from anywhere. Water companies do that. They have to get the water from somewhere otherwise people like you will complain when there are standpipes on the street corners and you are restricted to 10 litres a day per person for ALL purposes. Many water companies have Licences of Right that go back many decades - some to the 1960's and beyond and these cannot be touched, altered or abolished without enormous compensation. On top of that there are variations to the licence in order to cope with increased demand and these are time-limited, usually 10 years. THESE are the ones that the EA endeavours to alter and reduce and in many cases where it has been shown that damage is being done to rivers they have succeeded. The Kennet is a case in point and I was involved in some of those discussions.

Unless and until more reservoirs are built and that is a ten year lead-in at least as well as being extremely expensive and generates a huge amount of opposition, or until every coastal town above a certain population threshold has its own desalination plant, also expensive to build, run and maintain, then I don't see the situation changing much. The Abingdon Reservoir proposal is a typical case and THAT one has been rattling around since 1992. You, and many millions like you, want unlimited access to freshwater coming out of your tap, but have little idea of how it gets there.
 

BobP

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As far as swans and canoes go in their impact on Ranunculus, they will both strip out the growing fronds, but the roots remain and will re-grow. Nevertheless, a huge number of swans in a limited area will do enormous local damage. If any keen gardeners wanted an example, let 20 rabbits loose in their carrot patch and watch it disappear.

Back in 1976 - THE drought year for those who weren't around - we had very low flows on the Wylye. The riverside meadows were burnt brown with the only green being occasional clumps of thistles. This was the only time I ever saw cattle standing in the river and cropping what Ranunculus they could find. My friend in the village was a cowman on the local estate and told me that the cattle wouldn't do that in deeper water as they wouldn't dunk their heads in above the ears. I took him down there to see and there the cattle were, heads under well past the ears. Needs must when the devil drives.

It was possible that summer to walk the full length of one of the beats on that river - two miles in one case - and see not a single fish. Go back in the evening though and it was a different story. The BWO would hatch and the fish were there feeding.
 

John Bailey

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Treasures In The Sunday Times

Easter Sunday was so mellow I spent it discovering hidden rivers around the new house and planting a seven foot willow in the garden. Today, though, Easter Monday, the temperatures have halved, and so it is a day of work and catching up with the Sunday papers. The ST, I noted an hour ago, has a story on page 15 entitled “Salmon spawn after rivers leap back to life”. 'Ho hum' I thought as I settled down to be amazed. The crux was that old hot potato about demolishing weirs and mill pools, many of which have been erected for a thousand years. However, we were also treated to the staggering conclusion to a World Wildlife Fund report that established that burbot and sturgeon are extinct in the UK. Wow! I wonder how much that report cost, especially when there isn’t any one of us who couldn’t have told the WWF that fact for free. That’s what this ST piece said to me. Waste. Waste of our money as tax and fishing licence payers.

A selection of fishery experts were quoted by the ST as saying, basically, weir pools bad, fish passes good – even at tens of thousands of pounds a pop. The river Tiffey in Norfolk was highlighted as a shining example of Environment Agency conservation work because they had spent £55k removing an obstruction under a bridge so eels could migrate more easily. Think about this, if you will. The Tiffey is a very minor tributary of the Yare, so small it is hard to find for much of its course, and whether a single elver finds it way up there these days is debatable.

But even if rafts of young eels rampaged up the Tiffey every spring, how would this work possibly benefit them? I lived in Old Costessey mill house on the Wensum for two ill-fated years. Both the months of May that I was in residence elvers swarmed up the walls of the sluice gates in a liquid, living, shimmering carpet ten feet or more high. Hundreds of thousands of them continued their way upriver without a thought or a whinge about how hard their journey was. Never in hundreds of years have mills stopped eels, and other fish, moving up and down Norfolk rivers, but now this fishery management shibboleth is so firmly entrenched we will never see the back of it.

There is so much I could add to this, based on years of incredulous examination of how our fishery experts spend our money. But what is the point? ST columnist Ron Liddell comments on Boris Johnson’s once denied, now revealed affair with Jennifer Arcuri that cost us a wedge. Will BJ ever have to answer to that? What about Cameron’s financial shenanigans with this guy Greensill? Will we ever see either of them in the dock? No, we can say what we like, write what we like, but PMs will continue to be devious, and fishery scientists will continue to blow our money on any scheme that offers them employment.
 

kingf000

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Treasures In The Sunday Times

Easter Sunday was so mellow I spent it discovering hidden rivers around the new house and planting a seven foot willow in the garden. Today, though, Easter Monday, the temperatures have halved, and so it is a day of work and catching up with the Sunday papers. The ST, I noted an hour ago, has a story on page 15 entitled “Salmon spawn after rivers leap back to life”. 'Ho hum' I thought as I settled down to be amazed. The crux was that old hot potato about demolishing weirs and mill pools, many of which have been erected for a thousand years. However, we were also treated to the staggering conclusion to a World Wildlife Fund report that established that burbot and sturgeon are extinct in the UK. Wow! I wonder how much that report cost, especially when there isn’t any one of us who couldn’t have told the WWF that fact for free. That’s what this ST piece said to me. Waste. Waste of our money as tax and fishing licence payers.

A selection of fishery experts were quoted by the ST as saying, basically, weir pools bad, fish passes good – even at tens of thousands of pounds a pop. The river Tiffey in Norfolk was highlighted as a shining example of Environment Agency conservation work because they had spent £55k removing an obstruction under a bridge so eels could migrate more easily. Think about this, if you will. The Tiffey is a very minor tributary of the Yare, so small it is hard to find for much of its course, and whether a single elver finds it way up there these days is debatable.

But even if rafts of young eels rampaged up the Tiffey every spring, how would this work possibly benefit them? I lived in Old Costessey mill house on the Wensum for two ill-fated years. Both the months of May that I was in residence elvers swarmed up the walls of the sluice gates in a liquid, living, shimmering carpet ten feet or more high. Hundreds of thousands of them continued their way upriver without a thought or a whinge about how hard their journey was. Never in hundreds of years have mills stopped eels, and other fish, moving up and down Norfolk rivers, but now this fishery management shibboleth is so firmly entrenched we will never see the back of it.

There is so much I could add to this, based on years of incredulous examination of how our fishery experts spend our money. But what is the point? ST columnist Ron Liddell comments on Boris Johnson’s once denied, now revealed affair with Jennifer Arcuri that cost us a wedge. Will BJ ever have to answer to that? What about Cameron’s financial shenanigans with this guy Greensill? Will we ever see either of them in the dock? No, we can say what we like, write what we like, but PMs will continue to be devious, and fishery scientists will continue to blow our money on any scheme that offers them employment.
Unfortunately, once a dogma gets set in stone, it is applied everywhere, whether appropriate or not. Some of it comes down to funding - you get money from the government for that, but not for other more important things. For example, on my local canalised river the EA removed all none-native trees, event though they had been there for over 100 years, and cleared the bushes from the tow path so that horse drawn barges can again use the river. They said it made the river 'more natural'. It removed all most of the cover for the fish and in the 15 years since they did this, not a single horse-drawn barge has used it.
 

BobP

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Unfortunately, once a dogma gets set in stone, it is applied everywhere, whether appropriate or not. Some of it comes down to funding - you get money from the government for that, but not for other more important things. For example, on my local canalised river the EA removed all none-native trees, event though they had been there for over 100 years, and cleared the bushes from the tow path so that horse drawn barges can again use the river. They said it made the river 'more natural'. It removed all most of the cover for the fish and in the 15 years since they did this, not a single horse-drawn barge has used it.

Are you certain it was the EA? Got date stamped photos to prove it? A "canalised" river with tree clearance so that horse-drawn barges can use it sounds a lot more British Waterways to me - now the Canal & Rivers Trust, and unless you've been there 24/7/52 for 15 years you do not know who or how much that stretch has been used.
 

kingf000

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Are you certain it was the EA? Got photos to prove it? A "canalised" river with tree clearance so that horse-drawn barges can use it sounds a lot more British Waterways to me - now the Canal & Rivers Trust.
I'm going from memory, as I've deleted the e-mails, but it was still classified as a river and I'm sure it was an EA officer that I contacted. The main drive was the removal of 'foreign' trees, the clearance of the tow path was just an add on.
 

vital

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You were doing well up until the end point, then it all went wrong.

The EA don't abstract water from anywhere. Water companies do that. They have to get the water from somewhere otherwise people like you will complain when there are standpipes on the street corners and you are restricted to 10 litres a day per person for ALL purposes. Many water companies have Licences of Right that go back many decades - some to the 1960's and beyond and these cannot be touched, altered or abolished without enormous compensation. On top of that there are variations to the licence in order to cope with increased demand and these are time-limited, usually 10 years. THESE are the ones that the EA endeavours to alter and reduce and in many cases where it has been shown that damage is being done to rivers they have succeeded. The Kennet is a case in point and I was involved in some of those discussions.

Unless and until more reservoirs are built and that is a ten year lead-in at least as well as being extremely expensive and generates a huge amount of opposition, or until every coastal town above a certain population threshold has its own desalination plant, also expensive to build, run and maintain, then I don't see the situation changing much. The Abingdon Reservoir proposal is a typical case and THAT one has been rattling around since 1992. You, and many millions like you, want unlimited access to freshwater coming out of your tap, but have little idea of how it gets there.
I believe that the EA licences the abstraction by the water authorities (and by agriculture). Furthermore, when the business I worked for put a proposal to Southern Water for capture of their discharged, treated water to be de-salinated before pumping back inland for release above the abstraction points, they were not interested. Indeed, they in particular have been tasked with building a reservoir for years to alleviate the volume they abstract, but simply defer it on 'costing too much' grounds, whilst continuing to distribute profits to shareholders. Years of reduced dividends might have allowed a substantial 'supply reserve fund' to have been accumulated by now.
As to 'enormous compensation', the privatisation of the water authorities provided them with infrastructure on the cheap, via Parliamentary support, and if it had a mind to, Parliament could once again explore alternatives to dishing out taxpayer money.
Meanwhile, the government continues to plough money into the HS2, a scheme that has yet to show its merit or worth to the taxpayer. Instead, they perhaps should have looked at a capture and pipeline scheme bringing Scottish rainfall down the spine of England through several distribution points, including the hard-pressed south-east.
By the way, you are in no position to surmise "... people like you ..." and "You and many millions like you ...", plus "... little idea of how it gets there" when you actually do not know anything about me at all. That is the sort of febrile pontification there is far too much of nowadays.
 
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