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Sunday, 4 September 2011

From a Toxic Sever to a Thriving River!

A terribly nice and passionate man called Richard Jenkins from the Environment Agency is, as we sit hunkered comely like a couple of slack-jawed yokels sucking long grass fronds on the banks of the River Wear, telling me some astonishingly interesting things. Unfortunately the terminology isn't floating my boats, nor would it lift your skirts. There's a lengthy bit about reed-bed filtration and riparian buffer-strips. Then he says: "Oh, we also get to design meanders."
Hang on, I urge, leaving a nubbin of ripped hay between my two front teeth in the excitement, what was that? You actually get to … design … meanders?
Well, I've just found my, and I suspect your, dream job. I'm sure there was something in the works of the late Douglas Adams about someone who had a job designing meanders or, as we know them, better the "wriggly bits on rivers", and what bliss, and suddenly it turns out this job exists. Half a mile up from the Wear, people like Richard are introducing new wriggly bits on rivers for the benefit of the fish, who like their journeys to be interesting. What a job. It's like finding, at the job centre, that there are unicorns still needing shoeing, in liquid silver. This, I hope, serves as my – our – midlife plea for a job redesigning rivers, but also a way of leading into the fact that something rather fabulous is happening to them, if you hadn't noticed.
You might have done last week. The Environment Agency put together a nicely upbeat press release on the 10 most improved rivers in England and Wales, and it was picked up by many organisations rightly desperate this crammed news year for "non-killy" news, but, honestly, until you've come to one of these rivers, or unless you're an angler, you can't appreciate the tenth of it.
Statistics can be such traitors, triple agents, but one of Richard's sticks in my mind and more importantly in my notebook. There is, he says, carefully unfurling a couple of sheets of A4 in the warm breeze, a record catch of salmon going on in the Wear this year: the rod catch stands, end of August, at 1,531 fish so far. Fine. But what does that mean, in terms of comparison? How does that sit with the days when the Wear was a "dirty river"? Let's go back, mid-Seventies or something, mid-Sixties. The comparable catch in 1965, he says was … two. Count them: two.
The same story, though I don't have room here for all the statistics, is slowly repeating in all the other named rivers – London's once-toxic Wandle, the Taff in South Wales which once ran, like the Wear here at Durham, so black with coal dust that no life could survive; the Mersey basin, which powered the industrial revolution but had left it, as relatively recently as 1982, with the inglorious cachet of most polluted patch of Europe.

This article has been written by Euan Ferguson. To continue reading:

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