Hard work, careful planning and a shared commitment among partners have been acknowledged as helping a Best of the Best Life Nature project improve the ecological status of UK freshwaters.
Results of the Fitness Check’ of Freshwater Policy (see previous article in this edition of LIFEnews) are to be presented at an EU stakeholder conference on water policy (The 3rd European Water Conference) during the spring of 2012. Delegates at this high profile event will be able to discuss a wide agenda of freshwater issues, including matters related to freshwater resources which are protected by EU laws.
LIFE Nature has an excellent reputation for its conservation work in important freshwater sites, particularly those that relate to the EU’s Birds and Habitat Directives. Good examples of this type of LIFE Nature support can be seen throughout the EU, and an award-winning project from the River Avon in Britain demonstrates the valuable work that LIFE is providing for nature conservation in freshwater environments.
Several different River Avons are found in the UK. This LIFE STREAM project (LIFE05 NAT/UK/000143) targeted its assistance to the Avon that flows in the east of the England, through the counties of Wiltshire and Hampshire. Noted for its large numbers of fish species and diverse vegetation, the Avon and its tributaries here are designated as a Special Area of Conservation (SAC). What’s more, the rich variety of bird life that live in the surrounding Avon Valley have led to it being classified as a Special Protection Area (SPA).
Some of the rare species which rely on the Avon’s chalk river habitats include Desmoulin’s whorl snail (Vertigo moulinsiana,) Bewick’s swan (Cygnus columbianus bewickii) and gadwall (Anas strepera). However, pressures on the river system including land use changes and historic land drainage activities have an impact on the conservation status of protected species. Hence the LIFE project was launched in August 2005 to help redress threats to these protected European freshwater habitats.
Jenny Wheeldon from England’s nature conservation authority was the STREAM project officer and she explains more about the background to why the LIFE support was needed saying, “Large parts of the River Avon system have been dredged in the past, with channels being widened and the gravel on the river bed removed. This damaged the habitat for fish and other wildlife, which need a mixture of clean gravel and muddy bits on the river bed, and a range of water depths and speeds, to thrive. Small scale restoration projects had been carried out over a number of years on the river, but there was a clear need to take a more strategic approach, including carrying out larger projects, monitoring the techniques used, and giving guidance about best practice.”
She continues, “The management of the lower River Avon SAC is closely linked with the management of the grazing marshes of the Avon Valley SPA. Restoring the Avon Valley to favourable condition requires rehabilitation of the ditch network, tree and scrub removal, and restoration or installation of sluices or structures. However, all these activities potentially affect fish populations in the river. We needed practical ways to overcome these conflicts and help us move forward in restoring the river and valley.”
LIFE funds offered the opportunity for Ms Wheeldon and her colleagues to carry out a partnership approach for solving the Avon’s habitat management challenges. This involved building an alliance between NGOs, other UK public sector authorities, and local community stakeholders to establish the best way for implementing the LIFE project.
Speaking about the project planning phases Ms Wheeldon recalls how, “Identifying feasible project options that could be planned, designed and built within a four year LIFE project was a difficult and crucial part of the project bid. Once the STREAM project started, getting all the project partners together and reiterating what their obligations were, and agreeing detailed timescales, and milestones for delivery was crucial. Making sure all the partners knew what was expected, and when they needed to do it by made it easier to quickly identify potential problems (timing, technical or financial) and to address them.”
Networking and communication skills were therefore essential elements in the nature conservation toolkit for this freshwater project. Such expertise is also crucial for all other habitat projects that depend on partnership contributions.
STEAM project partners agreed an action plan based on restoring and improving the ecological status of freshwater habitats in the River Avon SCI. Their approach drew on the outcomes from a previous LIFE project (LIFE99/NAT/UK/006088: Natura 2000 Rivers - Safeguarding Natura 2000 Rivers in the UK) and involved testing and demonstrating a range of innovative restoration techniques appropriate to chalk rivers. Results from this LIFE funded work could then be used to help replicate similar freshwater nature conservation actions elsewhere in the UK and Europe.
Jenny Wheeldon summarises the work involved in the project’s action plan. “Life Nature funded three main areas of activity: river restoration, better linkage of river and floodplain management, and communication activities such as restoration site open days, public engagement events and production of best practice guidance. Our project carried out restoration at six sites on the river, reinstating lost physical habitat by putting back a more natural river channel, making it inviting for rare plants, fish and many other species, and encouraging natural processes to maintain and enhance it.”
“STREAM developed practical ways to integrate management of water levels in the Avon Valley with the needs of migrating fish populations in the River Avon. The project ran site visits, workshops and seminars for landowners, fishery managers, local planners and regulatory bodies from across Europe. We also worked closely with our sister project the Living River to increase general awareness and appreciation of the River Avon and its tributaries.”
Around €628 000 of LIFE Nature funds were invested in these Avon conservation actions, which cost approximately €1.5 million in total. Work on the LIFE project came to an end in September 2009 and by this time a considerable amount of freshwater habitat (as well as the associated species) had benefitted from the EU’s support. In addition, the local communities also gained from this successful LIFE project.
“Overall the project was able to restore more than seven kilometres of river and demonstrated a range of restoration techniques successfully” states Ms Wheeldon who goes on to mention some of the project’s interesting scientific outcomes. “We also created a monitoring protocol that sets out practical, cost effective ways to assess the physical and biological impact of river restoration projects.”
“Because rivers are complex and take several years to respond to restoration, it is not possible to draw any definite conclusions yet but there are many encouraging signs, such as salmon seen living and spawning in the restored River Wylye, and improvements in the gravel river bed and the plant community at all the sites. Much of the River Avon system is on private land, so people have limited opportunities to visit it. STREAM and Living River jointly created and improved opportunities for those who live and work in the catchment to learn about the river and get involved in the conservation of its natural heritage.”
STREAM’s successes were recognised by the European Commission’s LIFE Unit this year and the project was awarded an accolade as being one of the six Best of the Best LIFE Nature projects for 2010. Such recognition was in part attributed to the STREAM team’s ability to overcome obstacles and produce effective, sustainable results. In Ms Wheeldon’s own words, “Getting six large river restoration projects planned, designed and built in three years was a big challenge, particularly as so many permissions are needed in the UK for this kind of work. We managed to ensure this did not hold us up by ‘designing out’ anything likely to hold up permissions.”
“Rivers take a long time to respond to restoration, so it was very difficult to design a monitoring programme that would give us meaningful results within a four year project. Only one year of pre- and post-project data could be collected. We dealt with this by focussing on measuring physical habitat change due to the restoration work, rather than trying to record increases in numbers of fish and plants.”
Looking back on her LIFE experience, Ms Wheeldom reflects about useful lessons learnt. “Although the project was challenging at times, overall it went very well. The one thing I would probably recommend making sure that all the project partners have a reasonably even share of the work, otherwise it can be difficult to get ‘smaller’ partners to engage as fully as they might otherwise. Apart from that, I don’t think there is much we could have done differently other than to stop in raining during the English summer!”
LIFE’s work in the Avon catchment is being sustained through the original project partners whom have now been joined by others in developing and implementing a restoration plan which covers the whole River Avon SAC. A £5 million (equivalent to about €5.7 million) restoration programme is planned for the next few years, and a wider scheme or river enhancements will be carried out by a group of different organisations over the next 10-20 years to restore this important EU freshwater environment.
For more information about the prize-winning features of this LIFE Nature project see its website.