July 11, 2015

A love story

I went to Morden Hall Park this morning and was reminded all over again what a glorious urban oasis it is, especially in warm July weather. There were an astonishing number of butterflies on the wing in the meadows, we found a dead shrew, saw a song thrush, heron, coots and moorhens, and I found a jay's feather and a green woodpecker's feather to add to my collection.

We go there fairly often, to walk the dog and to visit the excellent garden centre; this time, though, I wanted to walk along the River Wandle and look at it through new eyes:


During the week I had written about the Thames for The Times newspaper, and was given generous expert help with my research by Steve Colclough, aquatic consultant and chair of an Estuarine and Marine Section of the Institute of Fisheries Management. In the course of our conversation, Steve had told me about the Wandle. Rather than paraphrasing, here's exactly what he said:

[The River Wandle] was once one of the best chalk stream trout fisheries in the country. By 1900 it was heavily abstracted for water supply, supported over 90 watermills in its short, 13-mile length, and was becoming grossly polluted. By 1911, it was formally classified as an open sewer. 
As bodies such as the Environment Agency and its predecessors began to improve water quality in the 1970s & 80s fish and bird life returned. By the 1990s small patches of chalkstream weed reappeared, and habitat creation schemes began. By the mid-1990s. a long-distance Wandle Trail opened up mass public access. Public access by local people now helps ensure that the past damage cannot happen again. Powerful influential local interest groups such as the Wandle Trust work closely with the Environment Agency, Thames Water and other interests to secure the future. 
This positive example, from one of the most densely populated urban catchments in the UK, can now be mapped across many urban freshwater streams. 

I already knew the rough outline of this story (you can read more about the Wandle's restoration, and about the brown trout that now live in it, in George Monbiot's inspiring piece here). But what struck me anew was not just its resoundingly hopeful message – one of urban transformation and renewal – but this line of Steve's: "Public access by local people now helps ensure that the past damage cannot happen again".

This is so important. Conservation can achieve amazing things, but rarely in isolation; long-term change happens when ordinary people like you and me take wildlife, and places, to our hearts. And that happens through contact and pleasure and experience. It happens through love.

It's easy to be discouraged when it comes to the environment, and it's true that the challenges we face are very great. None of us can halt climate change by ourselves, or bring back species threatened by extinction; but what we can all do is visit and enjoy the green spaces around us in a way that not only enriches our daily lives, but can – as the Wandle clean-up proves – actually secure their future.

I think they call that a win-win situation. To get connected, discover your local Wildlife Trust by clicking here.