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Winter world of the Barton Court river keeper

Nick Richards chronicles the changing seasons and the abundant wildlife

Geraldine Gardner

Geraldine Gardner

geraldine.gardner@newburynews.co.uk

Contact:

01635 886684

Winter world of the Barton Court river keeper

Nick Richards is the river keeper for the Barton Court Estate, near Kintbury. He is responsible for two and a half miles of river bank and plans his days based on the weather and, in fishing season, times when anglers are booked in.

The river is an important environmental resource and Nick’s role is to maintain the ecological structure of the land around it

“British Summer Time has ended and the weather has taken its cue from the calendar and offered up a classic autumn blend of sun and rain today. It is probably fair to say that river keepers are a funny breed, and it is definitely true to say that most of us look forward to this time of year.

October 1 marked the beginning of the close season for trout and this means that we finally get our river back. A love of fishing may have been the jewel that tempted us towards the world of fishery and habitat management, but it is a love of and respect for the water and its wildlife that makes us into river keepers. The river is running low and very clear as I type this, but that is to be expected.

The water levels held up well throughout the summer and aquatic wildlife has prospered as a result.

Up-winged (Ephemerid) flies continue to emerge from the water in abundance and the last few dragonflies can be seen hunting them. Signs of otters are an almost daily find and the slightly alien bubbling trill of the little grebe or dabchick is a constant companion. These charming, secretive little diving hunters seems to have had a successful year and they are more widespread on my home waters than in previous autumns.

I always feel that the bird population is in a period of hiatus as we await the arrival of the winter visitors and have said our annual farewells to the swallows and martins, but this does allow the eye to settle on the reed buntings, common sandpipers and stonechats that often go unobserved during the summer months. The stonechats are particularly enchanting as they seem to lead you along the riverbank by flitting from one fence post to the next.

I hadn’t seen a water vole for a few days and that always makes me uneasy. The danger of mink and the devastation they can cause is ever present. Happily, I found plenty of fresh signs of them yesterday and finally saw one swim across the river this evening.

It is an exciting time of year and my winter habitat enhancement work will be in full swing by the time you read this.

The goal for this winter is to generate some sinuosity – curve – in the river’s course. Generations of management as an agricultural land drain and dredging for gravel have left long reaches of the river flowing within a straight and uniform channel with little prospect of habitat diversity.

The new channel profile is created with two metre bundles of hazel poles known as faggots or, more correctly, fascines, which are held in place by split chestnut posts. The meanders created in this way promote a more diverse patchwork of micro-habitats and thereby lead to a greater range of aquatic flora and fauna.

Cold, wet and unspeakably rewarding, it is great to work on the river.

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Grey wagtail

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Dabchick

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