Thame Catchment Partnership Water Conference 2022

River Thame Conservation Trust Freshwater Habitat Trust, co-hosts of the Thame Catchment Partnership, hosted our first Water Conference on 20th September 2022 at Great Haseley Village Hall. We would like to thank everyone who attended as the event would not have been such a major success without your participation. We’re already looking forward to how we might bring partners together to share knowledge next year. We welcome your feedback about the event through our online survey.

The conference brought together 65 stakeholders and passionate supporters of the River Thame who work both professionally and voluntarily to achieve our goal of a river catchment with healthy fresh waters and wildlife, valued and enjoyed by local people. The following text provides an account of each of the presentations:

Welcome from the Thame Catchment Partnership

David Fraser | Chief Executive, River Thame Conservation Trust

Hannah Worker | Senior Project Officer, Freshwater Habitats Trust

Catchment partnerships are a nationwide model, recognising that complex and challenging impacts and their resolutions require joined-up thinking across multiple partners.  RTCT and FHT are fortunate to fulfil this role in the Thame catchment, and this conference is one way the partnership is pursuing its goals, through sharing knowledge, and energising (and being energised by!) and empowering stakeholders.

David Fraser, newly appointed Chief Executive of the River Thame Conservation Trust and Hannah Worker, Senior Project Officer with Freshwater Habitats Trust opened the event with an overview of the catchment and how we will collectively achieve our goals. Despite being relatively new to the river catchment, David has already identified many positive factors that the partnership will work to protect and enhance like sections of unmodified meanders and connected floodplain and the many chalk streams that run off the Chiltern escarpment. He also noted that the level of engagement and activity from volunteers and community groups was impressive and inspirational. However, the Thame and its tributaries do face issues and threats. None of the waterbodies in the catchment have achieved good ecological status under the Water Framework Directive. This assessment from government agencies has been supported by data gathered by volunteers showing poor water quality, pollution issues, detrimental physical modifications to the river, invasive species, and barriers to fish migration. Hannah from FHT highlighted how the Thame Catchment Partnership have been working hard to tackle these issues through floodplain restoration, in-channel restoration, removal of barriers to fish passage, Himalayan balsam control, and monitoring and data collection on water quality, aquatic invertebrates, fish and birds. Much of this work was only possible through the hard work and dedication of our passionate network of volunteers.

 

River Thame Chalk Stream Strategy

Andy Morsley | Senior Project Officer, River Thame Conservation Trust

The chalk streams which rise out of the Chilterns escarpment on the east of the catchment are true gems. However, they are under-appreciated and suffer a range of impacts, most notably poor water quality. RTCT, with partners, is developing a long-term strategy for their ecological recovery, led by our Senior Project Officer Andrew Morsely.

This project is being funded by the Environment Agency and is being delivered in partnership with experts in the Chilterns AONB working on their Chalk, Cherries and Chairs project. The key objective is to restore chalk streams and re-introduce the iconic brown trout where they will thrive. We will achieve this by maintaining and improving important in-stream habitats, improving connectivity by removing weirs and installing fish passages, increasing chemical, biological, and ecological monitoring, and by working with landowners and Thames Water to reduce abstraction and the negative impacts of pollution.

Building Oxfordshire’s Freshwater Network

Andy Gunn | Building Oxfordshire’s Freshwater Network Project Manager, FHT

Ellie MacDonald | Freshwater Futures Trainee, FHT

Hannah Worker | Senior Project Officer, FHT

As well as thinking about habitats in broad terms we also need to pay attention to individual species. This project led by Freshwater Habitats Trust creatively combines public engagement and rare plant conservation – as well as addressing the future skills needs of conservation by investing in early-career conservationists.

Andy Gunn, Ellie MacDonald & Hannah Worker gave an overview to attendees on FHT’s Building Oxfordshire’s Freshwater Network project. This Green Recovery Challenge Fund project has four components:

  1. Growet – an initiative to conserve rare and threatened wetland plants. Over 450 volunteers have been involved in growing these plants in their homes during summer 2022. These plants are planned to be re-introduced in winter 22/23 to sites with high-quality freshwater and wetland habitats.
  2. Freshwater Futures – 3 trainees are participating in a structured training programme to develop the wetland experts of the future. Includes training in eDNA, plant identification, amphibian & newt surveying, scything and management techniques.
  3. Alkaline Fen and Floodplain Grassland Restoration – To be achieved at Spartum Fen SSSI in the Thame Catchment which has locally rare plants such as Grass of Parnassus, Marsh Helleborine, Cotton grass and Black Bog Rush. The project will also include ongoing habitat management and hydrological monitoring at those sites.
  4. Floodplain wetland mosaic creation at Manor Farm Chearsley – large wetland complex of a backwater and 15 clean water ponds differing in key physical (size, shape and depth profile) and hydrological (groundwater, rainwater, river water, fed) characteristics, likely to result in a range of plant and animal; communities.

 

Thames Water: Investing in the Thame

Tim Beech | Environmental Partnerships Lead, Thames Water

 Thames Water and its activities are fundamental to the health of the catchment, in particular given the influence of sewage effluent on water quality. The mechanism for improving negative impacts of Thames Water infrastructure, like sewage treatment works, is through its 5-yearly investment cycle. Thus, visibility of, and ability to influence its developing investment plans are key to the objectives of RTCT.

Tim Beech, Environmental Partnerships Lead for Thames Water, gave an update on how the water company is investing in the Thame. Thames Water operates 32 sewage treatment works in the catchment. The 2020-25 Business Plan will invest in improving 745km of watercourse in the Thames area. The River Health Action Plan aims to achieve a 50% reduction in spills in all catchments and 80% in sensitive catchments with chalk streams like the Thame. Thames Water is also targeting 5% Biodiversity Net Gain on Thames Water sites including 14 in the Thame Catchment e.g. the new wetland at Aylesbury STW. Thames Water is also planning STW upgrades, investigating the impacts of Thames Water’s abstractions, identifying and preventing groundwater from entering the sewer drainage network, working with farmers to reduce pollution, and identifying and repairing misconnections (foul water incorrectly connected into surface water network and vice versa). You can view the full presentation here and can email questions to partnerships@thameswater.co.uk

Local Nature Recovery Strategies

Sarah Smith | LNRS Senior Advisor, Natural England

Where in the catchment should we focus our habitat creation and enhancement efforts? How do we ensure that all parties understand where the important freshwater habitat opportunities are so that they can be pursued? These are the kind of strategic spatial questions that LNRS are intended to address, through the development of a spatial plan. Work undertaken by RTCT & FHT on Important Freshwater Areascan feeds into such strategies, ensuring that planning authorities, landowners, and agencies all have the big spatial picture.

Sarah Smith, LNRS Senior Adviser at Natural England, outlined the government’s upcoming Local Nature Recovery Strategies. The Environment Act 2021 places a duty on every region to have an LNRS, led by the responsible authority (usually County Council or equivalent).  LNRS’s are a Spatial Strategy for Nature Recovery, mapping and planning how it will be achieved, including guiding where Biodiversity Net Gain habitat can most effectively be delivered. Sarah also touched on the Buckinghamshire & Milton Keynes Natural Environment Partnership, which has a Nature Recovery working group targeting 2 key themes: agriculture and community engagement.

The River Thames Initiative

Dr Mike Bowes | Group Head – River Water Quality & Ecology, UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology

In order to address water quality issues in the Thame catchment, we need a sound evidence base, which can distinguish different sources of pollution across all the watercourses. We are fortunate to be able to benefit from UKCEH’s River Thames Initiative, which provides us with a detailed picture of water quality over long timescales, an ability to compare the River Thame water quality with other Thames tributaries, and UKCEH’s load apportionment model, which provides a basis for distinguishing point and diffuse pollution sources. These provide an excellent basis for us to build our new citizen science water quality programme, which will sample at numerous locations across the catchment.

Dr Mike Bowes of the UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology gave a talk on the River Thames Initiative, which is a long-term Thames-catchment-wide water quality monitoring programme entailing weekly monitoring at 23 sites across the Thames catchment. The Thames initiative has operated since the 1990s, recording a range of chemical and biological parameters including nutrient and sediment inputs and chlorophyll and algae levels. One of these weekly monitoring points is on the River Thame in Wheatley. The results of this project have shown the following:

  • In the Thame and wider Thames, the main source of phosphorus pollution is point sources (most notably sewage treatment works) rather than diffuse (e.g. agricultural fertiliser) sources.
  • Phosphorus levels have greatly reduced, with a reduction from around 2000ug/L in the 1990s to around 200ug/L today.
  • The contribution of Agricultural (diffuse) Phosphorus and Nitrate increases as river flow increases (due to runoff from land; predominantly in winter), whereas contribution of  Phosphate during summer is predominantly from STWs.
  • Compared to other sampling sites in the Thames Initiative, the Thame results at Wheatley show:
    • The highest levels of total phosphorus concentrations
    • Intermediate levels of nitrate and Dissolved Organic Carbon
    • High levels of Boron (a constituent of domestic detergent, and thus considered a proxy measure of sewage effluent) and Sodium
    • Intermediate levels of chlorophyll
    • Phosphate at Wheatley on the Thame has decreased since 1998 but this downward trend stopped in 2006 with little change thereafter
    • Ammonia has reduced since 2014 but nitrate has increased

Fish Communities of the Thame

Andy Morsley | Senior Project Officer, River Thame Conservation Trust

Richard Borrell | Match Secretary, Cuddesdon Mill Village Anglers Association

Fish are a key manifestation of the health of the river and are also enjoyed by people from a wildlife and angling perspective. They are also vulnerable to chronic pollution and acute pollution events, both of which are a feature of the Thame catchment. Good quality data on fish can be hard to obtain, and this presentation shows the value of long-term angling data in complementing formal survey data to help understand overall fish communities and the factors affecting them.

Andy Morsely of RTCT and Richard Borrell, Match Secretary for the Cuddesdon Mill Village Anglers Association updated on the fish communities of the Thame. Andy gave an overview of Environment Agency data on fish population which shows:

  • The upper Thame: Poorest numbers of fish across all species with a decline from 2016 to 2019 at Eythrope. However, results did show improvement in numbers of Dace, Chub, Roach, Gudgeon 2016 and 2019 near Long Crendon.
  • The mid-Thame: Variable results in numbers with Roach and Chub maintaining numbers and Gudgeon and Dace numbers variable with location, but all still present.
  • The lower Thame: Results showed improved numbers of chub, dace and roach, variable Gudgeon numbers, and presence of Barbel with improving numbers.

2022 electrofishing results were also covered which showed a consistent presence of chub, gudgeon and roach but no barbel or bream. Chub seems to be replacing dace as the dominant species in some locations, potentially due to resilience, with high numbers in the Kingsey Cuttle Brook. Populations in the Scottsgrove Brook seem to be suffering due to point source pollution from sewage treatment works.

Richard gave an overview of catch data and observations collected by Cuddesdon Mill Village Anglers Association. Anglers have seen a drop in top match weights and numbers in the 1990s, potentially due to sewage discharges and invasive species like mink and signal crayfish that prey on fish and their eggs. However, top match weights have started to improve from 2014, potentially due to otters displaying mink and predating on crayfish.

Both Richard and Andy stressed that while the situation is improving, in large part due to the hard work of our passionate supporters and volunteers, there are still major issues in the catchment that need to be tackled. Namely, the negative impact on water quality due to discharges and spills from sewage treatment works. As it currently stands, the Trust believes that the permit levels set by the Environment Agency for each STW which dictate the level of nutrients Thames Water is legally allowed to discharge are not adequate. The Trust will continue to work with the EA and Thames Water and push them to review the permit levels and take into account the assimilative capacity of the receiving watercourses.

Launching the River Thame Bird Atlas 2016-2020

Nick Marriner | Trustee, River Thame Conservation Trust

Up until now very little was known about the birdlife of the River Thame catchment. To remedy this issue, River Thame Conservation Trust undertook a volunteer-led, catchment-wide bird survey to create the River Thame Bird Atlas 2016-2022. This publicly available online atlas was launched in May 2022 and has proved just how important the River Thame is for birds.

 

RTCT Trustee and long-time volunteer, Nick Marriner, gave an update on the recently launched River Thame Bird Atlas 2016-2020. This citizen science project was made possible by a team of 63 volunteers who undertook catchment-wide surveys and mapping to determine the status of bird populations and how they varied across the catchment and over the survey years. We encourage you to explore the Bird Atlas for yourself here. Nick highlighted that the 7 years of data collected has shown:

  • The Thame catchment is home to a range of protected and notable species, particularly in the floodplain,
  • A number of sites of high nature conservation value were identified by the project, which has resulted in their subsequent designation as Local Wildlife Sites
  • The level of engagement and dedication from volunteers shows that people in the catchment do care deeply about wildlife and nature,
  • Gathering data on a large landscape scale in this way provides evidence to pursue habitat restoration projects and monitoring programmes.

Become a Citizen Scientist with iRecord

Robin Hutchinson | Entomological Data Assistant, Biological Records Centre, UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology

As highlighted in the previous talks on fish and bird surveys, the Thame catchment has historically been poor in biological records when compared to other river catchments. However, this is starting to change as local nature enthusiasts are doing their part as citizen scientists to fill data gaps with their observations. New tools and technology are making biological recording easier than ever with one of those tools being iRecord, developed by our friends at UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology.

Robin Hutchinson of UK CEH gave an informative talk on how and why to use iRecord, a website and app where users (anyone) can submit biological records through casual observation or more systematic surveys to be verified by experts, collated in a database, and shared publicly with thousands of other records, thus building a national-scale picture to inform conservation efforts. Robin highlighted that groups like damselflies, dragonflies, and flies had many records on iRecord in the catchment, whereas other insect groups, aquatic invertebrates, and mammals have few records. Robin stressed that iRecord relies upon experts to validate records on the database, and encouraged anyone with relevant skills to volunteer. If you have questions on how to use iRecord or are interested in becoming a verifier, contact irecord@ceh.ac.uk

Securing bathing water status for our rivers

Ned Wells | Co-founder of the End Sewage Pollution mid-Thames group

Tim Harris | Director, TH-Environmental

Our mission as a partnership is not only to work towards a healthy river to benefit wildlife but also a river that can be enjoyed by local people through activities like paddling and swimming. In April 2022, a group of activists in Oxford were successful in obtaining bathing water status for a popular swimming spot on the River Thames at Port Meadow in Oxford. This means that this stretch of river will be tested by the Environment Agency for two types of bacteria; E. Coli and intestinal enterococci. These bacteria typically get into water from sewage and animal manure.

Ned Wells and Tim Harris, who have both been heavily involved in this highly successful campaign, presented to attendees. Ned, co-founder of End Sewage Pollution Mid-Thames, presented the timeline for the successful campaign which included a floating protest, leafletting, a petition with 5000 signatures, securing council support, presenting the petition to Thames Water, funding and coordinating monthly bacteriological sampling at 18 river sites, taking a survey of the number of people using the river, and making the formal application. Tim Harris then educated attendees on the science of the bacteriological laboratory tests that were undertaken for the project which revealed high levels of harmful bacteria at many of the sites. We then heard about how the experience of the Oxford campaign might be applied to the aspirations for a similar bathing water designation at the Old Fisherman Pub in Shabbington.

 

River Thame Conservation Trust Volunteering Updates and Opportunities

Chelsea Hothem | Project Officer/Volunteer Coordinator, River Thame Conservation Trust

River Thame Conservation Trust is a grassroots organization which was formed by a group of individuals who were passionate, but concerned about the seemingly declining state of the River Thame. To this day, the RTCT is still founded on this idea of concerned local people coming together to improve the biodiversity of the River Thame and public understanding, appreciation and enjoyment of the river catchment and its wildlife. None of the work we have achieved over the years would have been possible without the hundreds of passionate volunteers who have contributed.

To highlight how volunteers have supported RTCT over the last year, Project Officer Chelsea Hothem updated on how volunteers have been working together for a healthy river. Some of the major achievement from the volunteers included:

  • Continued annual removal of Himalayan balsam from the Bear Brook in Fairford Leys, Aylesbury in spring/summer of 2022,
  • Our expanding Riverfly hub which monitors river health through sampling of aquatic macroinvertebrates,
  • In-stream habitat improvement on the Chalgrove Brook in Autumn 2021 and Spring 2022 with over 70 volunteers building 38 berms & deflectors in 400 meters of chalk stream,
  • The Chalgrove Brook film, an award-winning short documentary created by Nicola Schafer in partnership with RTCT, Watlington Environment Group, and Watlington Climate Action Group which is raising awareness of the value of chalk streams, and the threats they face,
  • The many exciting events being organised and run by local community groups across the catchment for Rivers Week 2022 including litter picks, guided nature walks, and educational talks and demonstrations.

Chelsea also provided an update on how attendees (and the public generally) can get involved in future volunteer opportunities by signing up on our new online volunteer management system. During autumn 2022, the Trust is looking for volunteers to join our Water Quality Monitoring Network, which is a citizen science project to measure the health of the entire River Thame catchment through the FreshWater Watch platform. Those interested can sign up through this link: http://bttr.im/o29tw

 

Farmer Clusters in the Catchment

Hilary Phillips | Senior Project Officer, River Thame Conservation Trust

Rose Dale | Thame Valley Farmer Cluster Member, Rose Dale’s Organic Farm

Farmers are key to the achievement of the Catchment partnership aims, farmer clusters provide a forum for farmers to share knowledge and resource, and as an efficient means of the catchment partnership to engage with farmers – for mutual benefit.

Hilary Phillips of RTCT who leads RTCT’s Engaging with Farmers project and local farmer Rose Dale who runs a 220-acre organic livestock farm in Chearsley next to the River Thame. Hilary highlighted that agriculture is the predominant land use in the catchment which means that farming practices have a significant potential impact beneficially or detrimentally on our rivers. Through the Engaging with Farmers project, the Trust runs the Thame Valley Farmer Cluster which regularly brings together farmers and land managers in the mid-Thame region to learn about water & nature-friendly farming, share knowledge, and collaborate on landscape-scale recovery efforts. This farmer cluster is one out of the four farmer clusters that operate in the Thame catchment and in March 2022 RTCT brought together members of all four clusters for a Farmers’ Forum event which you can read about here. Rose spoke about her experience working with the Thame Catchment Partnership to deliver a floodplain restoration project on her land which you can find more details on here.

Local Group Updates

Local Environment Groups are pivotal to the well-being of rivers – as the eyes and ears able to identify issues and impact on the ground, instigators of action to protect and enhance rivers, and champions of their river within the local community. Partnership with Local groups is key to achieving the Catchment Partnership’s aims, and we are delighted to hear from them at the conference.

Cuttle Brook Nature Reserve Volunteers

Mike Furness who leads the group of volunteers who maintain and improve the Cuttle Brook Nature Reserve in Thame gave a presentation on their work. The 13-hectare site contains 1.15 km of river. The conservation volunteers have been working in the reserve for over 30 years and have tackled projects big and small like constructing a footbridge, building backwaters/fish refuges, monitoring aquatic invertebrates, water quality, and wildlife, and augmenting the brook with gravel for fish spawning. The issue of managing the negative impact of dogs in the reserve (disturbing wildlife, eroding the riverbanks, pollution from flea treatments) was highlighted. Mike also detailed plans to expand the reserve into Rycote Meadow which will protect an additional stretch of the Cuttle Brook before it meets the River Thame. This expansion is anticipated to bring benefits such as flood alleviation, biodiversity enhancement, and carbon sequestration.

Watlington Environment Group

Mike Chadwick of Watlington Environment Group (WEG) gave an update on WEG’s ongoing Watercourses Project which started in 2013 with the aim of better understanding the Chalgrove Brook (an important chalk stream) and its tributaries. Mike highlighted that despite the brook running underground in a culvert as it passed through Watlington it has historically been home to a brown trout population; currently the only one in the Thame Catchment. The project involved monthly recording of water levels in the brook and the aquifer that feeds it, the results of which can be seen  here. The group has also undertaken a number of practical tasks including litter picking, selective removal of bankside vegetation to let light reach the brook, allowing in-stream vegetation to thrive, improving in-stream habitat by building berms and deflectors, and adding gravel to improve spawning conditions for fish. The group has also been recording aquatic invertebrates, amphibians, and fish. Sadly in 2014, there was a major fish kill event in the brook traced back to disposal of an unknown toxic substance into a road drain which went straight into the Chalgrove. This event motivated the group to start a “Yellow Fish” public awareness campaign reminding people that anything poured into road drains goes straight into the stream. WEG and their partner community group Watlington Climate Action Group are continuing to work closely with the Thame Catchment Partnership and other organisations to protect and improve this precious chalk stream, the Chalgrove Brook.

Risborough Environment Group

Risborough Environment Group (REG) was founded in 2017 in Princes Risborough and now has several hundred local volunteers. Martin Jarvis of REG outlined how the group aims to provide opportunities for local, active volunteers to maintain and enhance the natural environment and biodiversity of the area. Their activities include litter picking, wildlife monitoring, wildlife photography, managing land including the Phoenix Trail, advocating for nature through publications, and stream monitoring through RTCT’s Riverfly Hub and Water Quality Monitoring Network. Martyn gave an overview of their Riverfly monitoring across the Kingsey Cuttlebrook and its tributaries, an important complex of chalk streams. Their results have shown that the stretch of the Crowbrook downstream of the sewage treatment works is basically devoid of life, with very few, only highly pollution tolerant invertebrates being recorded. This is in stark contrast to the rest of their sites which frequently score quite high on the Riverfly scoring system and sometime even contain rare pollution sensitive animals like Blue Winged Olive mayflies.

Overall conclusions on the conference

The conference was a massive success and all of us in the Thame Catchment Partnership are grateful to our many supporters who attended and contributed. If you did attend, we welcome your comments and feedback through this online survey.

We hope these this event and the talks presented have allowed you to connect with experts and other volunteers in the catchment and have inspired you to continue working towards our collective mission of a healthy river with thriving wildlife to be enjoyed by local people.

We would like to thank Waste2Taste CIC for catering a healthy, handmade, and sustainable dinner using surplus food that would otherwise go to waste. All of the profit from their catering service, and the leftovers from the event, went towards providing meals to families in need in Oxford. We would also like to thank the Rothschild Foundation for generously funding this event.