River of Life I

Wetland habitats are considered to be amongst some of the most biologically significant in the world, yet they are decreasing at a rapid rate, causing many species to decline. In 2010, Earth Trust embarked on an ambitious project to re-wild a stretch of Thames riverbank. New habitats were created, such as backwaters, ponds, wet woodland and fen, all set within an agricultural landscape. These new habitats support an array of wildlife, including fish fry, amphibians, birds and invertebrates, as well as contributing to flood amelioration and providing a tranquil riverside green space for visitors to explore.

What we did

In 2010 Earth Trust acquired 35 hectares of land next to the River Thames. As well as adding 2.5km of Thames frontage to the Earth Trust portfolio, this land provided a golden opportunity to create a unique wetland landscape.

Earth Trust and the Environment Agency formed a partnership to implement the River of Life project. The Environment Agency funded the majority of the landscaping work, with the rest generously donated by Earth Trust Friends and supporters. Before any work could take place, the hydrology of the site was monitored for two years via boreholes, allowing the plans to be refined.

Phase 1:  The hard landscaping to transform the site

launched in 2013 and over 12 weeks 38,000m3 of soil was removed to create 17 ponds, five backwaters, two reedbeds and an area of fen. The soil removed from the site was spread 15-20cm thick on two nearby arable fields, before being ploughed in. Both fields were immediately put back into production, with no negative impacts on yield.

Phase 2 – the soft landscaping and habitat creation

Began in spring 2014 and involved planting 5,000 reeds, restoring 20ha of grassland, planting 3,500 trees in a new wet woodland, and installing fencing to help with the grazing management. This phase involved the support of volunteers and also saw the first of many engagement events, where partners, contributors and supporters were invited to visit the site to see how work was progressing.

Phase 2 was partially funded by Trust for Oxfordshire’s Environment (TOE2) and Biffa Award.

The Impact

The new habitat area links directly with an existing area that is internationally significant for wildlife: Little Wittenham Wood (a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and a Special Area of Conservation (SAC)).

It means there’s now a continuous area of high quality wildlife habitat from the Thames basin up to the top of the Wittenham Clumps – an area covering 150ha.

One of the primary objectives of the project is to benefit a range of Biodiversity Action Plan (BAP) priority species, such as: skylarks, yellowhammers, water voles, otters, great crested newts, stag beetles and club-tailed dragonflies. Regular monitoring of the site allows us to see how well these species are progressing. One of the early successes was the impact on fish populations – an Environment Agency survey of the backwaters less than a year after their creation showed hundreds of thousands of fish fry using them as a safe haven; further monitoring showed 12 of the Thames’ 20 species of fish were present.

The River of Life project will help provide many ecosystem services such as habitats for biodiversity, fish fry refuges and recreational access, but there are also less obvious services the project supports. These include flood amelioration (additional flood capacity totalling around 34,600m3 within the ‘one in five years flood zone’), carbon sequestration, flow regulation, improvements in water and soil quality (including nitrogen and phosphate levels), and food production.

In June 2014 River of Life was the joint winner of the Best Practice Award for Practical Nature Conservation at the Chartered Institute of Ecology and Environmental Management (CIEEM) Awards; it continues to be a fantastic demonstration site for successful wetland habitat creation.