What goes on behind the scenes in the Itchen Valley
- Credit: Steve Page
Area Head for Central Rivers & Downs, Martin de Retuerto, from the Wildlife Trust shares what goes on behind the scenes to help maintain the county’s ‘jewel in the crown’
The Itchen Valley brings together two connected landscapes, the chalk grassland of the South Downs and the wetlands, chalkstreams and fens of the River Itchen. Together they form a vital area of work for the Hampshire & Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust.
Chalk Rivers are some of the most biodiverse ecosystems in Europe, and the Itchen is regarded as one of the ‘jewels in the crown’. World renowned for its ‘ginclear’, mineral-rich water, stable river flows and temperate waters, it’s home to a wide range of plants, and a rich, yet sensitive ecosystem including Atlantic salmon and brown trout.
The river is also intrinsically linked to the valley through which it flows. The fertile fen-grasslands were changed in the 17th century for irrigation, creating the Itchen’s unique conditions for habitats and species.
Today however, the Itchen Valley faces immense challenges. Abstraction of water for public water supply and deteriorating water quality – notably as a result of septic tanks, watercress growing and fish farming along the river – are possibly the greatest impacts affecting its health.
The Trust has worked with landowners on the Itchen Valley for thirty years and has been at the forefront of efforts to conserve otter and the white-clawed crayfish. Working with Natural England, the Trust has provided a management ‘service’ to landowners, offering practical expertise for restoring the river and floodplain and returning to traditional livestock grazing.
The Trust is now involved in actively managing more than 20 sites in the Itchen Valley, including reinstating grazing by livestock. This helps maintain the unique open meadows and the wildlife that live in them, which would otherwise be lost to trees and scrub.
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The Trust’s herd of traditional breed British White cattle are helping us restore these grasslands to their former glory. Species like water avens, ragged robin and meadowsweet quickly appear, as well as waterfowl such as wigeon, mallard and gadwall.
Putting back the pieces of the jigsaw within the floodplain not only helps wildlife and habitats to thrive, but also helps the river and floodplain to function more naturally. This offers more natural flood protection and improved water quality - demonstrated perfectly at our Winnall Moors nature reserve during the 2013/14 winter floods. Using the Itchen’s natural floodplain helped divert high flood waters away from Winchester city centre, preventing the kind of devastating urban flooding we saw elsewhere in the country.
Our vision is to restore the valley for wildlife, while also trying to improve flood protection, water quality, environments for fisheries and habitats for pollinators.
With a nod to the past we are restoring the valley for future generations and working hard to protect one of our most treasured natural assets.
For more information about the Itchen Valley visit hiwwt.org.uk/conservation-projects***
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