Introducing Courtney Brain

Courtney Brain

I cannot believe how lucky I am to be working on the picturesque chalk streams of Hampshire. One of my new favourite river descriptions is ‘gin clear’ waters and its so true! I love being able to walk along river banks and spot trout and grayling hanging out in the middle of the streams, I can’t wait to see what else I can spot, especially during the salmon spawning season!

Admittedly it has been an interesting time to start in a new team with all the restrictions in place and hybrid working still the norm, but despite the distance I have felt very welcome and already part of the team! And thanks to a brilliant team BBQ I now know that many of the team have enviable welly wanging and willow weaving skills – which just means I’ll have to practise for next year!

From a young age I fell in love with the oceans. It was only later on, after my ocean science degree, that I discovered my passion for rivers. I had hoped studying freshwater environments would help me to connect people to oceans but from the moment I started studying fisheries management I was hooked (sorry I couldn’t resist)!

I began my freshwater career as a seasonal survey assistant with the Ribble River Trust (RRT), spending a very hot summer in waders assisting with electrofishing and invertebrate surveys. I also helped with a radio tracking study being conducted by the RRT, tracking the movements of tagged brown trout displaced downstream of newly installed fish passages. This study reinforced just how important longitudinal connectivity of rivers are to the entire ecosystem. Reconnecting our rivers allows species to access vital spawning habitat and important food resources, thereby improving population resilience to future problems such as climate change.

From there I moved further north to Scotland to work on a rare fish project, Saving the Sparling (also known as smelt) with the Galloway Fisheries Trust. The small anadromous fish that smells of cucumber really stole my heart. I think what makes it so species is that I was able to witness the spawning event on the River Cree, as even though they are thought to still be present in 36 British rivers the specific spawning locations have yet to be found. I had the honour to witness the magical spawning event where thousands of silver beauties gather at the tidal limit to spawn en-mass during the middle of the night in early spring. As the moon reflects on the riffles, the jumping sparling make the river boil with silver flashes – it’s a true spectacle! Alongside this community engagement based project, I was also involved in practical conservation efforts including the removal of invasive non native species (INNS) along several rivers in the Galloway region. Some of the main target species included Himalayan Balsam, Giant Hogweed and American Skunk Cabbage.

It was this work which is what led me to join the Wessex Rivers Trust! I’m excited to take on a new challenge, tackling INNS in the Test and Itchen catchments. The presence of INNS plants and animal species can negatively affect the health of river ecosystems, including destabilising banks and outcompeting native species. Luckily there are already a lot of hard working volunteer groups and river keepers our there that are trying to tackle INNS in their area. My job is to work alongside these groups, giving them advice and training where required, as well as identifying priority target areas that may have a larger impact in overall catchment health. As with any INNS work this will take time and the support of the entire catchment. With the threat of new populations of INNS emerging it really is crucial that we build a resilient network of monitoring and removal to protect our precious chalk streams!