Research and Monitoring

Alex Deacon

Looking back over the last five or so years, the nature restoration agenda has placed an increasing emphasis on a more joined-up, landscape scale approach to conservation projects. All our native flora and fauna requires access to a diversity of healthy, connected habitats on a landscape scale, including the wildlife associated with our rivers. Smaller patchworks of isolated habitats are less resilient to change, such as pollution, or drought.

Since joining the Trust in 2018, I’ve witnessed both the size and nature of our projects evolve with this more holistic approach to conservation. Although monitoring and research makes up a relatively small piece of the Trust’s overall output, the diversity of surveys, studies, and science based partnerships has had to keep up with this change.

Collecting the right environmental data is key to inform both the design phase of a project, and to assess the outcomes delivered by our hard work. The past 12 months paints a pretty good picture of this progression, with our monitoring programmes including surveys and assessments of both aquatic and terrestrial flora, fauna, soil health, and water quality. Whilst the team have a pretty good knowledge and experience of undertaking surveys in the river, we are less familiar with the environmental survey techniques required beyond the river bank! This meant working with a wide range of new partners and specialists throughout Wessex and further afield.

In 2022, the Trust began work on a river and floodplain restoration project on the Upper Crane, a chalk stream tributary of the upper Stour. With over 6km of river valley under their ownership, the landowner was keen to explore opportunities to improve water quality and habitats in both river and the adjacent floodplain.

Working with locally based terrestrial ecologists, the team established an environmental baseline to help inform options and assess future changes to life in the valley. Surveys included fish, aquatic macroinvertebrate, river habitat, terrestrial vegetation, insects, and saproxylic beetle communities (associated with deadwood). Plans and funding are now being developed to deliver actions on the ground over the next couple of years.

Downstream on the middle Stour, we are currently working with one of the largest landowners in the catchment to investigate opportunities for restoring 2.5km of river and 43 hectares of former arable and pasture floodplain.

As well as benefiting both aquatic and terrestrial ecology, a wide range of ecosystem services are available when the river is given space to naturally flood and meander through a healthy floodplain. With large areas of floodplain open for restoration, the Trust have included soil health surveys to assess the current levels of phosphate, nitrate, and carbon contained within the floodplain. In the long run, naturally functioning floodplains can sequester and store excess nutrients and carbon, helping improve water quality, quantity, and carbon stocks (carbon held in our soil is the nation’s largest store of carbon).

More on all this to come in 2023!