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Thames project creates wetlands for wildlife
Buy this photo » Lizzie Rhymes, left, projects officer for the Environment Agency, and Jayne Manley at the new wetlands project. Pictures: OX62565 Ed Nix
CREATING a “truly wild” stretch of the River Thames in South Oxfordshire is the ambition for a major ecology project.
The Earth Trust charity wants to turn the clock back as far as Roman times to return land off the river at Shillingford, near Wallingford, to the haven of biodiversity that flourished there centuries ago.
Starting this week its River of Life project – to cost up to £1m – is a mighty challenge and an example of how environmental charities and not-for-profit groups bring land from private into public use.
The project will transform roughly 2.5km of riverbank to create a series of ponds, reed beds, fens and backwaters that – with help from The Environment Agency – will remove 33,000 cubic metres of land over 50 hectares. Work will take three to five years.
Trust chief executive Jayne Manley said: “The sheer size of the wetland we plan to create, and the opportunity we have to provide a haven for vulnerable wildlife, makes this a project of national significance.
“Over time our visitors will be able to experience this landscape as it evolves, learning about the importance of water and wetlands at the same time.
“This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to do something very special.”
Returning back water channels – which flow in the opposite direction to the Thames – is vital to give wildlife a haven from the flow of the river.
The absence of these channels is one of the key reasons the Thames has been assessed as “failing” for fish egg spawning under the European Union Water Framework Directive, Ms Manley said.
“I don’t think there is anything quite like this in Oxfordshire,” she added.
“We wanted to go back to what the Thames would have looked like in the past. We are going back to Roman times.”
Species set to benefit include the water vole, skylark, brown hare, otter, common toad, great crested newt, grass snake and rugged oil beetle.
The trust has warned that wetlands – despite being “among some of the most biologically significant” worldwide habitats – are “decreasing at a rapid rate, causing many species to suffer”.
Dr Manley said the need for agricultural land – the site was used for sheep grazing – is why so many wetlands have been lost over the centuries.
The land, part of its Earth Trust Farm, will also be less prone to flooding, it said.
The Earth Trust charity was formed in 1967 as the Northmoor Trust for Countryside Conservation, with an endowment from Sir Martin and Audrey Wood, the co-founder of manufacturing firm Oxford Instruments.
Since then it has played a key role in opening land for the public to enjoy, including Wittenham Clumps, near Didcot, famed for its views and the most visited open space in Oxfordshire.
The new development will link with internationally-recognised Little Wittenham Wood, already a Natural England special area of conservation and sites of special scientific interest.
It will eventually include paths, boardwalks and a raised viewing platform with links from the Thames footpath joined to Shillingford to the east and Days Lock, Dorchester-on-Thames to the west. Webcam links are also planned.
Environment Agency area manager Julia Simpson said: “The new habitats will play an important role in getting the River Thames into a good ecological condition.
“This is the largest habitat creation project we are currently working on in the River Thames floodplain.
“The River of Life project site will be a real asset to the local area, dramatically enhancing the environment for both wildlife and people.”
Temporary footpaths will be put up while the first phase – digging out the soil – takes place, funded by £15,000 raised through the public and the remaining £285,000 to £385,000 from the agency.
The trust is fundraising for £145,000 which will be used to create habitats beginning next spring. Willows, reedbed and wet woodland planting and grassland restoration are planned. Volunteers are sought for this work.
The third stage will create the six backwater channels, which will increase fish productivity.
It said: “It will be one of the few places on the Thames, and the UK’s navigable rivers, where the bankside habitat and river topography are as near to ‘natural’ as possible.”
Ecology group transforms county
THE Earth Trust began to acquire land along the Thames in South Oxfordshire for public use from 1982 when it bought Little Wittenham Wood and, over the next decade, the popular landmark Wittenham Clumps.
It bought College Farm in 1993 and planted the 50-hectare Paradise Wood to investigate timber quality and its resilience to climate change.
The trust, based at Little Wittenham, opened a new timber- framed office in 2006 and a visitor centre a year later with a Poem Tree Cafe.
Beyond Little Wittenham, the trust also manages Wallingford’s Castle Meadows and Riverside Meadows, Didcot’s Mowbray Fields and Radley’s Thrupp Lake.
After acquiring 500 acres of riverside farmland next to Little Wittenham Wood, the trust now has 1,200 acres and employs 30 peoples and 100 regular volunteers. It was re-named the Earth Trust from the Northmoor Trust in March 2011.
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