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Forest Diary: Bringing rivers back to life in the New Forest

Published: Tuesday 24 October 2017

Forest Diary: Bringing rivers back to life in the New Forest

Ecologist Sarah Oakley talks about the restoration work undertaken at Wootton stream near Burley this summer.

Natural streams transport water through the lowest point in the floodplain, which if you think about it, is the path of least resistance – and as a result, natural channels have many twists and turns as they meander through the landscape, creating pools here and faster flowing riffles there. 

The Wootton riverine woodlands follow the course of Avon Water across the Open Forest, starting about 750m downstream of the A35 and continuing to the edge of Sway village. The work that has been done here will slow the water flow, allowing time for the wetland habitats to absorb the rainfall and helping to prevent flash floods that can pose a risk to local properties downstream. By restoring the natural watercourses we are helping to make sure the Avon Water and the surrounding habitats are more resilient in both winter floods and summer droughts. 

The timing of this work is critical - it has to be carried out during the summer months, when the water 
levels are at their lowest, and the ground is at its driest. The frequent heavy rainfall that occurred this July 
and August really held us up and we had to delay our work programme until ground conditions were judged 
to be dry enough for contractors to continue restoring the site. It’s a complex operation and we’re working 
with specially-modified, low ground pressure machines in a very special place that we are trying to protect 
and improve. The New Forest has many designations that highlight why we need to undertake this 
restoration - it’s a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), a Special Area of Conservation (SAC), Special Protection Area for Birds (SPA) and also a Ramsar site (a wetland of international importance).  

Although the re-creation of the old meanders is now complete on the upstream half of the site (as far as Wootton Bridge) and the channel has been reconnected, there is still work to be done downstream. The next step begins in May 2018, when we will continue the work on the stretch of river downstream of Wootton Bridge car park.
Walkers and riders will be pleased to know that stock crossings and passageways have been re-done as part of the work, although it is worth bearing in mind that allowing the river to work more flexibly with the floodplain during heavy downpours means that these crossings will still be temporarily impassable during, and for a little while after, heavy rain. The end result will help to protect the SSSI habitats of the New Forest, and prevent fast flows eroding away chunks of river bank and flooding land and properties downstream.

I’m part of a small team in the New Forest that has over 40 years of experience in re-instating these natural curves in Forest streams, infilling deep man-made drains, and reducing damaging erosion in our fragile mires. So far, over 10 miles of historical drainage channels have been successfully restored to naturally meandering streams, and this summer we completed another 1.5 miles at Wootton.

At Wootton, the artificial channel was restored to its original meandering flow path, reconnecting it with the forested floodplain and so reducing the speed of the water moving through the area during heavy rain. In addition, a series of riffle and pool sequences were created to provide flow diversity within the channel. These features allow a much greater diversity of both plants and animals to thrive, living in lots of varied microhabitats and supporting all stages of their life cycles, from dragonfly nymphs hunting in the riverweed, to sea trout spawning on the gravels of the stream bed.

This project is funded by the New Forest Higher Level Stewardship scheme, which is drawn from European and Central Government to spend on environmental restoration projects. It’s part of a ten-year scheme, administered by Natural England, which is held by the Verderers and managed by them in partnership with the Forestry Commission and the New Forest National Park Authority.

We’ll also continue to collect post-restoration fish, invertebrate and vegetation data to help gather an even greater range of scientifically robust evidence about the effectiveness of restoration techniques. This monitoring will shed more light on the environmental benefits of the scheme, and any improvements that we could make in the future.

We’d like to reassure forest users that the final phase of the work in this area will cause as little disruption as possible to footpaths and cycle tracks.  We are aware of how busy Wootton Inclosure can be during the summer months and we’d like to thank all the local residents and businesses that have worked with us, supported this project and helped us to safeguard these habitats for future generations.