The River Waveney forms a natural boundary between Suffolk and Norfolk. It rises from a ditch between Redgrave in Suffolk and South Lopham in Norfolk. For much of its journey, it meanders slowly until its tidal reaches that are first met at Ellingham Mill. It eventually reaches the sea at Great Yarmouth after joining the River Yare at Breydon water.
Interestingly, the Little Ouse rises just opposite the source of the Waveney and joins the Great Ouse to continue the county border until they reach the sea at King’s Lynn. After heavy rains, Norfolk is virtually an island.
There are signs of uninterrupted human habitation in the Waveney valley from as far back as the palaeolithic period. Small towns, churches, and mills are dotted along its banks, hinting at how humans have influenced the course and nature of the landscape over time. The valley inhabited by the first hunter-gatherers was vastly different from the heavily farmed and managed landscape we see today. Historically, rivers would have comprised multiple small and mobile channels through and across the floodplain, providing a complex and intricate mosaic of habitats.
However, during a long process that started as far back as the Neolithic period, much of the complexity of the river was removed; riverside trees were cleared and channels deepened, straightened, and connected to a series of land drains. For example, in 1670, an Act of Parliament allowed the Waveney to be modified for navigation. Three locks were built to enable commercial boats to reach Bungay Staithe. The result today, is a relatively featureless river running unimpeded to sea. The unfortunate and unintended consequences have been devastating to wildlife through loss of available habitat and have, ironically, increased the risk of flooding downstream.
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The scale of loss
A much waterier floodplain, supporting fenland and reedbed, is essential for wetland wildlife and natural processes such as water filtration and carbon sequestration. The differences between today’s landscape and that of a century ago are hard to imagine. In 1637 (pre-drainage), there was an estimated 3,380 km² of fenland in East Anglia. Just 200 years later, this was reduced to below 2,400 km², and by 1983, it was reduced to 10 km². This was fuelled by government legislation and financial incentives to farmers to adopt industrial farming methods after the war and expand land use for food production. The loss to wildlife and destruction of natural systems is astounding, but awareness-raising by NGOs, such as the Rivers Trust, public pressure, and new Environmental Land Management schemes (ELMS), is beginning to create a shift towards further restoration and protection of rivers and wetlands.
Gordon Lascelles, a former Trustee of the River Waveney Trust (RWT), who brought up his children canoeing the Waveney, noticed that family paddles were becoming more difficult. He understood the importance of fallen trees for aquatic wildlife, but preferably not if they prevented paddlers using the river. He conceived an idea to maximise the benefit of fallen trees in the river, while still keeping it open for different forms of recreation.
The RWT Canoe, Access and Biodiversity Project works with landowners, whose land includes wetlands of rivers and streams, to protect and retain trees that have fallen into the river as they can help restore natural processes and aid wildlife recovery. The project identifies and monitors fallen trees in the channel and creates a passage in the river for kayaks and boats. The RWT works closely with the Environment Agency (EA) to check that the trees present no flood risk, and encourage landowners to see the trees as a component of vital ecological restoration, which costs them nothing.
Allowing wood to lie where it falls offers numerous benefits. It can help remove pollutants such as silt and nutrients that contribute to poor water quality — a service once provided by extensive wetlands. Trees provide habitats, food, and refuge for a vast range of invertebrates and other animals living within its freshwater, reef-like environment. They help reconnect floodplains and reshape rivers to develop natural flow variation that oxygenates the water. Greater structural diversity in the channel increases the niches available to wildlife. Glides, riffles and pools can form, cleaning gravel for the benefit of spawning fish. Waste plastics can be captured before they make their way to the sea.
The project’s success depends on a team of trained volunteer River Wardens who carry out regular canoe surveys along the river. They record information, including signs of pollution, invasive species, and any obstructions, into a bespoke field app on their phones, which gives a GIS position. In this way, a more precise understanding of the main river channel is emerging, which will help plan future conservation interventions and restore lost features.
The role of nature in maintaining our mental health
A connection to nature is essential for our mental health and sense of belonging to a place, motivating us to value and protect this environment. So, we must ensure individuals can continue to access and enjoy the wild and serene spaces rivers can provide. The canoe access and biodiversity project funded by Defra’s Natural Recovery Fund is working to capitalise on the benefits of the EA’s more hands-off approach. This is good news for our rivers and the wider catchment.