Lost river returns to Somerset 70 years after it dried up

Wednesday, April 24, 2019

Restoration of unnamed tributay of River Chew offers new habitat for rare wildlife.

A lost river has returned to the Somerset countryside for the first time in 70 years, and with it a new habitat for several species of rare and threatened wildlife.

The unnamed tributary of the River Chew from the Mendip Hills down to the River Avon was severed by a dam in 1956, when the valley was flooded to form the Chew Valley Lake reservoir that supplies Bristol and Bath.

Downstream, the river ecosystem withered into a dry ditch and died. An important ecological corridor was lost for aquatic creatures that had been journeying along the route since the last ice age. Instead, an occasional spill from the reservoir was diverted into a concrete spillway, bypassing the old riverbed and destroying the central linking piece of the route’s ecological jigsaw.

The water has now been redirected as part of a restoration project by Bristol Water with Bristol Avon Rivers Trust (Bart) and other partners. The river’s revival has included dramatic re-engineering of reservoir overflows, redirecting water along its former path.

The restored route meanders through an abandoned 1950s poplar and alder plantation, once used for matchstick making. Dense thickets of bramble and shady canopy have been opened up to encourage the river wildlife, bringing in light and encouraging aquatic plants, and the channel has been reshaped with berms, riffles and pools so undesirable silt buildup is scoured out by the natural energy of a faster current, opening up fish and invertebrate spawning areas.

The stream is one of three connected tributaries that join the River Avon further down the valley. Vulnerable populations of water voleeels and white clawed crayfish should be able to weave their way upstream and recolonise the area.

Fish likely to return include salmon, trout, chub, perch, bream, carp, pike, minnow and stickleback.

Otters, kingfishers, barn owls and rare bats already hunt close by. Spring forest floor flowers have reappeared on the river banks. Chattering green woodpeckers and orange-tip butterflies flash through fresh sunlight among primroses, wild garlic and bluebells.

Matthew Pitts, the catchment strategy manager for Bristol Water, hopes to see the stream billowing with clouds of mayflies, damselflies and dragonflies. A fly monitoring project staffed by volunteers will help scrutinise the river’s health.


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