They don’t live in a windmill. They work in a two-storey wooden shed in the grounds of a windmill.
‘They’ are the Little Ouse Headwaters Project (LOHP), which has been working for twenty years for these things:
- to reconnect, restore and maintain a continuous corridor of wildlife habitat along the headwaters of the Little Ouse River;
- to enhance landscape, encourage access, education and appreciation of the valley fens and associated habitats along the river.
In last month’s projected tour of the Little Ouse, I looked forward to visiting LOHP in Thelnetham windmill. As things worked out, the meeting happened not during a tour but in a day trip. I took a train to Diss and biked from there to Thelnetham, about eight miles west.
Waiting for me outside the mill premises was LOHP trustee Rowena Langston, and through the November afternoon, she conducted me round a small part of the woody area that LOHP manages.
One of the first things Rowena explained to me was the importance of making artificial meanders.
Rowena: A digger pushes alternate sides of the riverbank to force the river into a narrower, more sinuous channel. The self-cleaning capacity of the river then gets to work. The faster water flow in the narrowed channel moves the silt along, to be deposited in areas of slower flow such as the sides of the channel, especially in the meanders. And when the river level rises at times of flood, it can spill over onto these little terraces formed by pushing that earth in, and then ultimately up to the riverbank and onto the floodplain.
But the amount of silt coming into the river is still more than the river can take away. We work with landowners to try and reduce the loss of that soil fertility for them. We’ve put silt traps along the river as well. But they then have to be emptied, and you’ve got to have a receipt for that silt, which is all quite expensive for a little charity. We’re waiting to see what the Environmental Land Management schemes might enable.
AB: How old is this meander-building technique?
RL: Nigel Holmes developed it. I first worked with him in the late 1980s, early 1990s. So, it’s that sort of timescale. If it was ever done before, it wouldn’t have been done with big diggers. It would have been people with shovels. But historically, digging had always been straight and deep with the idea of moving water off the land.
When water levels are really low, abstraction becomes challenging, both for the wildlife and for water supplies. There are huge demands on water supply, and I think it’s a resource we take for granted in Britain, because obviously parts of the country get more than they want.
Benches, trees and bridges
AB: This bench, is it shaped after the properties of the log it was cut from?
RL: It’s shaped to the tree that it came from, yes. The benches were constructed to be teenager-proof and cattle-proof. And they have lasted really well. And they’ve also got a little bit more quirkiness to their appearance.
AB: Not a sculpture of an otter, then.
RL: It could have been, but no. In other places we have seats where they’ve engraved things in the back. But these are a more rustic model, you might say.
AB: What are those tall, spindly trees around the edge there?
RL: Ash, and almost all of them are dead from ash dieback. And those trees will fall into a footpath, the river, or onto the road. We’ve had tree surgeons advise us on which ones look particularly dodgy. It’s very sad because you can see that these would have been the dominant tree here. There are also things like crack willow, like those two there – stunning specimens, which typify these wet sites. But the ash is on the slightly higher, dry ground.
AB: What’s the story behind this bridge?
RL: We had the opportunity to join a big European funded project. Norfolk County Council’s team led the replacement of this bridge and it involved airlifting the girders. They had a helicopter up here, bringing them in. There is no vehicle access here. So, it was a bit of a difference, this one, compared with Bob’s bridge, which was done entirely by volunteers and shovels.
Film and other crafts
AB: There are some interestingPenny Lindop videos on your website. How did they come about?
RL: We quite often put trail cameras out to record wildlife. Over weeks and years, that builds up into quite a picture. It also provides some lovely little cameos of wildlife behaviour – kingfishers, water rails, otters, water voles, water shrews.
But what Penny used was a smartphone to document what she was seeing on her walks. She went out at different times of year, including going out in the snow. She’s generally involved with our activities and a regular walker on these sites. She created one of those videos when she was out in search of spindle berries. These are usually pink and orange, but you also get a white variant.
AB: I read of a plan to reintroduce fish to Norfolk rivers. Do you have a view on that?
RL: Great if their habitat is suitable, but you need to ensure that you’re releasing them where they can survive and thrive.
AB: LOHP had its twentieth anniversary celebration in the summer. How did that go?
RL: We had a lovely time! Some 500 people attended. There were local crafts skills, creative art, and traditional fen crafts on display. When you work closely with something, you tend to see a lot of the things you haven’t done yet, whereas other people come and they see the changes more than you do and that gives you great encouragement to carry on.
It was a rewarding afternoon, a lot of it completely new to me. The blog posts and newsletters on LOHP’s website show what the charity did to deserve the 500 people who turned out for its big day in July. Further information about it, including how you can support it with money or time, is at lohp.org.uk .