The value of the River Wye network of watercourses and their riverside corridors as an important wildlife and community resource was recognised in a comprehensive study of the river published in 1992 and in subsequent local plans developed by Wycombe District Council. In the years since, thanks especially to the efforts of the local councils, the Chiltern Chalk Streams Project, the Environment Agency and local environmental charities and groups, more attention has been given to improving both the quality of the river network and its riverside environment. Since 2007, the Revive the Wye Partnership has taken a lead in seeking to drive forward and co-ordinate such improvements.
Despite the legacy of the harmful impacts of historic industrialisation, incompatible development pressures, water abstraction and some farming practices, the quality and attractiveness of the River Wye has been improved gradually over the last two decades. However, the water quality of the River Wye is still rated by the Environment Agency as falling below its ‘Good Ecological Status’ standard. To the casual observer who has noted the increasing number of trout in the river and more sightings of birds such as Kingfishers and Little Egrets this might not be so obvious. The truth is that the river and its smaller water courses are still quite vulnerable to ill-advised human intervention and unforeseeable natural events. If steady improvement towards Good Ecological Status is to be maintained, the river network will require constant attention and care to ensure that all the various factors that could influence its special chalk stream environmental quality are wisely managed.
Naturalising the river and its watercourse corridors
The urbanisation and industrialisation of previous centuries left a legacy of hard structures, both in and alongside the watercourses. These restrict the movement of waterborne wildlife and the provision of ‘green’ corridors that provide bankside habitats. They also restrict the movement of wildlife between the river and its riverside margins. In recent years, several such structures have been removed. Hard-edged concrete or metal riverbanks have been replaced by softer naturalised banks which encourage plant growth that helps to support a range of wildlife species. The Revive the Wye Action Plan includes a number of further projects aimed at replacing legacy hard structures by softer river-edge landscaping. The extent to which this can be achieved however can sometimes be affected by other factors, such as flooding control requirements.
The control of development on land that adjoins the River Wye and its tributaries is a prerequisite for protecting these important assets for future generations. The River Wye Advice Note , published by Wycombe District Council and the Environment Agency provides advice to riverside landowners and developers. Revive the Wye has also produced a Reviving the Wye – How you can help advice leaflet which sets out good practices for home owners and farmers whose land abuts the river.
Improving river quality
Some of the conservation work conducted by Revive the Wye and its volunteers is aimed at improving water quality by introducing additional oxygen into the water. This can be achieved quite simply by creating small water features out of natural materials which gently disturb the water flow. Especially on straight sections of the river, these features help expose the gravel floor of the chalk stream and create sheltered and silted areas in which chalk stream water plants, invertebrates and fish can prosper.
Various techniques enable the water quality of the river and its impact on river-life to be measured. One of these is River-fly Monitoring,There are several people who have been trained to take monthly measurements, working in conjunction with the Chiltern Chalk Streams Officer. River-fly monitoring is used as a means of identifying the extent and nature of pollutants that may have been introduced into the river.
As the river quality improves, so will the quality of the habitats along the river and the range of wildlife using it. There is no reason why this should not lead to the reestablishment of more stable communities of chalk stream species, including mammals such as water voles and otters, sightings of which are rarely reported these days.
Threats and challenges
In any urban area there is the risk of litter and pollution, accidental or otherwise. Good quality development and landscaping design can assist in keeping this to a minimum. However, where new development is not an option or change to structures would be impracticable or very costly, for example road run-off, the scope to eliminate or reduce the risk may be limited in the short term. In co-operation with the Environment Agency and other authorities, Revive the Wye is working to identify and prioritise a programme of initiatives that will start to tackle some of these issues, where funding can be made available.
A significant preoccupation of the Partnership’s volunteers in recent years has been to tackle the problems created by non-native plants, particularly the invasive Himalayan balsam which supresses native plant species and, if not controlled, can cause significant damage to wildlife habitats and affect water flows. Fortunately, concentrated effort in the middle sections of the river has reduced a potential major problem to manageable proportions.
As for any chalk stream, water abstraction in its various forms can lead to low water flows with a variety of consequences for wildlife and the attractiveness of the waterway. Projects by Thames Water and the Environment Agency have had a positive impact in recent years. Even tighter controls on abstraction and use may be necessary in future years. The water supply for High Wycombe and the Wye Valley is taken from the Chilterns chalk aquifer which also supplies the Wye with its water. Water usage per person in this area, is amongst the highest in Europe. As housing and industrial pressures grow and if climate change factors impact, new challenges are likely to arise.
Wycombe District is fortunate in that the River Wye Corridor is fairly well provided with quality green open spaces, where the public can enjoy recreational time. Working with the District and parish councils, Revive the Wye has encouraged changes in the management of the river margins so that natural habitats are increased without unduly restricting public enjoyment of the riverside.
Continuous public access alongside the river is not possible on several stretches of the Wye due to the historic pattern of built development and the extent of private ownership. However, where redevelopment is proposed, every opportunity is taken by liaison with developers and landowners and action through the planning system to create new access routes. This is helped by the recommendations and standards of the Environment Agency on the provision of buffer zones between the top of the river bank and the built edge of any new development.
The District Council’s planning policies include provision for the creation of riverside access between Desborough Recreation Ground and the town centre as opportunities arise. They also identify potential projects that could lead to the eventual deculverting of at least part of the Wye within the town centre, subject to feasibility and financial constraints. Other opportunities for improving access, particularly in the less built-up parts of the Wye corridor may arise over time.
More on Chalk Streams
Next: Our Vision