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Essex River Wardens Win National Award!

The Essex Wildlife Trust River Wardens have been announced as the winners of the inaugural Lynne Farrell Group Award at the National Biodiversity Network Awards for Biological Recording and Information Sharing.

The NBN national award scheme was established in partnership with the Biological Records Centre and the National Forum for Biological Recording. The awards are presented annually to individuals or organisations that are making outstanding contributions to biological recording and improving our understanding of the natural world. This year for the first time an additional category to recognise groups of people that have contributed to biological recording was added.

Two volunteer wardens from the Essex Wildlife Trust River Warden Scheme collected the award on behalf of the group and its coordinators at a reception held at the National Museums Scotland. Thanks to all of our River Wardens for for making the scheme such a success.

In 2007 Essex Wildlife Trust established the Riversearch otter and water vole survey. Riversearch surveys involve training volunteer surveyors to recognise field signs and monitor a set stretch of river annually for otter, water vole and mink signs. Riversearch volunteers have tracked the spread of otters and water voles as they have re-established themselves in Essex catchments; and monitored the presence of American Mink, resulting in a comprehensive dataset of riverine protected species for Essex,

In February 2014 the Riversearch volunteer network was expanded to include Riverfly monitoring and river condition surveys, as part of a wider Essex Wildlife Trust River Warden scheme. In addition to the initial 200 trained volunteers, a network of over 170 volunteer wardens has been established, monitoring 16 river catchments in Essex. River Wardens monitor river quality via freshwater invertebrate sampling; and take part in targeted invasive and protected species surveys to fill in gaps in our existing knowledge of the distribution of these species in Essex. In addition to this they patrol their stretch of river regularly and report problems or any unusual activity, acting as an early warning system for potential pollution incidents and highlighting areas of improvement.

As well as contributing to the national Riverfly monitoring scheme, Wardens are also alerting us to pollution events, and to the presence of species such as Brook Lamprey, resulting in the first new records of this species on the NBN Gateway for Essex in 10 years! Volunteers have gone above and beyond what EWT have asked them, by getting together to organise litter picks and invasive species removal (Himalayan Balsam) and even organising social events such as canoe trips along their local river.

The benefits of the scheme have been recognised by the Environment Agency and water companies, as the Wardens have reported incidents such as broken pipes before they became a major problem. The River Wardens also work with Rivercare and other local organisations including canoe and angling clubs to promote data sharing and participation in the scheme to a wide audience that was not previously engaged with biological recording. This approach has been so successful it is now used as an exemplar in other areas, and has even featured on the BBC’s Countryfile!

2023 Update: Essex Wildlife Trust have just launched their updated volunteering scheme, ‘River Champions’.

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The topics below represent the pressures that many waterbodies in the Combined Essex catchment face. They have been divided into six main categories, but it is quite often that these categories can overlap as pressures relate to each other.

Diffuse pollution occurs as water moves across the land or through the ground and picks pollutants. These pollutants can come from a variety of places, including urban and field run off. The pollutants that enter the river can range from sediment to toxins to excess nutrients, meaning that diffuse pollution can cause a whole range of different issues. The variety in these pressure groups means that it is something that can be quite difficult to tackle. It requires groups of people, business and stakeholders to work together in order to solve this problem.

Fish should be able to travel up and down a river freely, allowing them to move and breed in the most suitable habitats for them. It is important that fish populations do not become isolated, as this makes them more susceptible to disease and puts pressure on their survival. Unfortunately, there are often many barriers along rivers that prevent fish from being able to migrate up and down stream. Where barriers have been identified, they will be seen as a ‘pressure’ on a waterbody. Thankfully, there are many solutions now that can be put in place to aid fish passage, even over large barriers.

The flow in a river can vary greatly throughout the year as rainfall and run off can have an effect. This is a natural process. It is when flow is impacted by non-natural processes that it can cause problems. Sometimes, water can be intercepted or removed from a system; this will reduce the flow, therefore changing the habitat conditions. Some species are happy in high energy rivers. This means that when flow is reduced, these species will no longer survive. The opposite of this can occur when excess water is entering a river, for example through increased runoff. Low energy systems then become high energy and displace the species that live there.

A species that is not meant to be found in a particular area is known as an invasive species. Invasive species can be from a different habitat or a different country altogether. Most of the invasive species that we find on our rivers have come from other countries – plants that people have imported for their gardens or animals that have been released for food or by animal rights activists. Control of invasive species requires a lot of time and effort. We are fortunate that we do have a range of methods to manage most of the invasive species that cause havoc on our rivers, but there are still some which we are still struggling to control.

Many of our rivers have been heavily modified over the years as rivers have been used for a wide range of purposes. Physical modification is one of the biggest factors that causes our rivers to be unhealthy. The issues that it can cause range from reducing habitat, preventing migration of mobile species, and even have an effect on the water quality. Where structures and modifications are no longer in use or necessary, they should be removed to allow the river to regain its natural state. Unfortunately, this action is not always taken which means that many of our rivers are over straightened and contain redundant structures. It is possible to return a lot of our rivers to their natural state, through one off projects, but in other cases it is not possible as the river has been changed to protect assets or manage flooding. It is recognised that some modifications cannot be removed without having severe negative impacts both socially and economically.

This is pollution that comes from a single identifiable source. The pollution entering the river could include a whole range of pollutants. Some point source pollution is known about and licences, for example sewage treatment works. Other sources are not licensed, and therefore work needs to be done with landowners to fix the problems that are allowing the pollution to enter the river. Point source pollution is more easily controlled than diffuse pollution as it often only takes one management approach to solve the issue.