Today the DIVA South Winterbourne project came home. We met Jake Dew, Conservation Officer for Dorset Wildlife Trust, and got up close and personal with the South Winterbourne.
We walked beside the river as it babbled along upstream of Martinstown and Jake explained just how special Winterbourne streams or rivers are. It turns out that there are other Winterbournes – the nature of these rivers contained in their name – being rivers which mostly only flow in the winter and completely dry up in summer. They are found in areas of chalk, a narrow band of which stretches from the south coast across the country towards Norfolk and the numbers of rivers like the Dorset Winterbourne are very few and should thus be appreciated and preserved.
Currently there is some water flowing through Martinstown but beyond the cricket field even this small trickle disappears and from Winterbourne Monkton onwards the stream bed is completely dry. It will probably remain this way until December, depending on rainfall.
However this is normal behaviour for a chalk stream and the flora and fauna that thrive in this habitat are adaptable and if needed, can move up or down stream in order to survive. Sometimes they do need some help and this is where the Dorset Wildlife Trust conservation team steps in. As part of the Dorset Wild Rivers project many stretches of the South Winterbourne have been restored to their former natural state, following years of straightening, over enthusiastic dredging and overshadowing by overgrown banks. In places the more natural meandering course of the river has been reinstated, larger trees removed, stones or wood placed in the river to create breaks in the flow and shelter for the fish and invertebrates living along the banks. Natural river vegetation has been encouraged and the end result is that in these areas the balance has been restored and the diversity of species is on the increase.
On our walk alongside the river Jake pointed out the contrast between the silted up areas which have been accessed by cattle, destroying the river banks and much of the vegetation, and the clearer, chalk bottomed stretch with patches of ranunculus, a clear indicator of a healthy river.
He spoke in great detail about all the wildlife that thrive in the river environment – many types of fish, voles, kingfishers and the rare Winterbourne mayfly and blackfly whose numbers are on the increase.
Jake was a charming and delightful interviewee. He told us that during a childhood spent “messing about in rivers” he would never have dreamed that one day as an adult his job would involve doing just that! His dream is to own a stretch of river and spend all his time making it the most perfect river ever.
And if more proof were needed as to how passionate he is about his job, when I asked him to pose for a photo, he said “shall I stand in the river?” and then, once in the river, spotted the dreaded Himalyan Balsam, which just had to be pulled out before he could pose for my smiley pic!