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Farmers urged to take advice in bid to cut river damage

PUBLISHED: 06:26 18 October 2015

An example of how not  to undertake watercourse management and a clear case of serious harm. Taken of a river outside of East Anglia.

An example of how not to undertake watercourse management and a clear case of serious harm. Taken of a river outside of East Anglia.

Archant

Landowners across Essex, Suffolk and Norfolk have caused "serious harm" to water bodies in about six or seven cases this year, the Environment Agency (EA) says.

A section of the River Wensum that is also in very good ecological condition following river habitat enhancement worksA section of the River Wensum that is also in very good ecological condition following river habitat enhancement works

The government body, which monitors rivers and waterways, is urging farmers and landowners to contact it for advice and support before clearing out rivers and estuaries to avoid unwittingly destroying habitats and wildlife.

Will Akast, its catchment delivery manager for Suffolk, said there had been an upturn in cases.

“It’s more than we’ve seen in the past,” he said, adding: “Because of new environmental legislation there’s a new focus on the sustainable management of our rivers.”

The UK has been set stringent targets to meet in terms of the quality of waterways and their habitats, he explained.

River Glaven in Norfolk -  healthy rive in great ecological condition following some habitat enhancement works.River Glaven in Norfolk - healthy rive in great ecological condition following some habitat enhancement works.

But the agency’s emphasis was on partnership work with landowners where it offers advice and guidance, and this was working successfully.

“That’s going really, really well,” he said. “We are here to help. If any landowner feels their river needs some work, before they go in, I’m here to give them free advice.

“We want to avoid any kind of enforcement situation because that’s absolutely the last resort.”

Landowners’ sensitive management of waterways had “come on leaps and bounds” compared to two or three decades ago, he said.

Will Akast, Catchment Delivery Manager - Suffolk, Environment AgencyWill Akast, Catchment Delivery Manager - Suffolk, Environment Agency

The EA, which has seen its budget cut, is required to prioritise reducing flood risk to people and property.

“Landowners may see a river and think that’s a bit of a mess,” he said. This sometimes resulted in them “going in just a bit too hard” and scraping river banks and beds and killing wildlife and harming habitat.

Occasionally, landowners felt the river need for a “big dredge” when that was the last thing the waterway needed, he said. There were other ways to deal with areas where there was aggressive plant growth, such as through tree shading, he added.

The legacy of the post-war era, where a lot of drainage and river construction went on, was that rivers were widened and deepened too much, causing them to become sluggish. Further widening and deepening them simply exacerbated the problem, he explained.

An example of serious damage done to a watercourse, with the removal of hard river bed material that is critical to the healthy ecological functioning of the river as spawning habitat for many fish speciesAn example of serious damage done to a watercourse, with the removal of hard river bed material that is critical to the healthy ecological functioning of the river as spawning habitat for many fish species

Under the Water Framework Directive, the EA has some tough targets to meet which requires it to look at management of watercourses.

Where a line has been crossed and damage is caused, the agency does take enforcement action where necessary, he explained.

“There are live cases at the moment where we are first of all looking at the voluntary approach and having features restored,” he explained.

“We totally understand in some cases some maintenance work needs to be done. We are certainly not saying nobody can maintain watercourses. But you have got to do it in the right way.”

He added: “They need to be able to farm and need to be able to farm profitably, but there is a balance.”

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