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River Stiffkey

The River Stiffkey, in North Norfolk, rises from springs throughout the catchment and meets the sea at Blakeney Harbour, close to the village of Stiffkey. The main river originates in Guybon’s Wood, close to Swanton Novers and is joined by a number of tributaries, notably the Binham and Hindringham streams and is about 18 miles long from source to sea. The river flows through and over sand, gravel, clay and, crucially, chalk. It is this chalk bedrock which gives the river its clear waters and unique wildlife. The valley is home to a number of small villages, including Walsingham (Great and Little), Wighton, Langham and Fulmodeston.

Check out the river map to the right of this page.

What is the River Stiffkey Project?

There are about 200 chalkstreams in Britain draining the chalk band that runs from East Yorkshire to the Isle of Wight. 12 of these are in Norfolk but are much less-well known than the famous fishing streams including the Test and Itchen in Hampshire. Chalkstreams are unique in that they flow from water filtered through porous chalk deep underground. This results in mineral-rich water running clear and cold with few suspended solids, giving rise to a distinctive flora and fauna of high biodiversity value. However, Norfolk is amongst the most intensively farmed counties in Britain and is also one of the driest. There is thus the potential for a three-way conflict between the needs of drinking water provision, farming and biodiversity.

The Stiffkey is a chalkstream that rises between Swanton Novers and Fulmodeston and runs 23km into the North Sea between Siffkey village and Morston. It runs through or near the villages of Fulmodeston, Little Snoring, Great Snoring, East Barsham, Houghton St Giles, Walsingham, Wighton,Wells-next-the-sea, Warham and Stiffkey. The Stiffkey river suffers from dredging, straightening and excessive fine sediment loads caused by run-off from arable farming. In most reaches the river has been disconnected from its floodplain by drainage and the effect of accumulated dredgings on the bank that confines the river to its bed. Initial results of a PhD study into the effects of adding artificial gravels to enhance trout and sea trout spawning, suggest the value of these is severely reduced as a result of excessive siltation.

The Water Framework Directive (WFD) issued in 2000, places an obligation on EU member states to restore rivers to certain standards by certain dates. Further, a government whitepaper: “Water for Life” was published in 2011, that recognises the threats to our water and biodiversity resources and seeks to address the legacy of over-abstraction in our rivers. So, there is strong drive to improve the sustainability of water management at national level. Norfolk Rivers Trust has the capacity to deliver against these intentions at local level.

NRT sees the opportunity to restore and sustain the biodiversity of the river. It seeks to improve protection of soils and enhance availability of clean water for irrigation in a coherent package of linked measures. This initiative would help secure the future of farming in a landscape with slender soil and water resources threatened by climate change and increased consumer demand. This approach has not been taken before because the threat of ecosystem collapse seems too remote to most people.

Actions

  • Develop Stiffkey Catchment Conservation Group composed of key stakeholders – mainly farmers and landowners
  • Give “First Approach” talks to communities within the catchment in late winter 2011/2012 to generate community interest
  • Foster community participation via Conservation working parties, appropriate access, educational walks, childrens’ activities, interpretation boards
  • Plan, fund and deliver in-stream and floodplain restoration on as large a scale as possible – Landowner active participation required
  • Recreate chalk-stream wetland to include release sites for breeding common cranes, reedbeds for bitterns and wet meadowland suitable for breeding lapwing, snipe and redshank with appropriate grazing under HLS
  • Partner up with Norfolk Wildlife Trust using the “Living Landscape” model
  • Use the river as a corridor to connect the coastal zone with the interior with sea trout as a flagship species

Water Quality – Catchment Sensitive Farming

Water quality is to be addressed by engaging with farmers and landowners. This is to be done in conjunction with the NE Catchment Sensitive Farming Officer. The main goal is to work with farmers to reduce the effects of run-off (silt, nitrates and phosphates and possibly metaldehydes) and ensure the widespread use of proactive soil conservation measures. In most cases changes to management that improve water quality simultaneously reduce farm costs, but the capital costs of some items can be paid for by grants under Countryside Stewardship or CSF. Farmers have a very strong incentive to embrace the proposals because the commercial sustainability of their enterprise in the medium and long-term rests on retaining quality topsoil. In many places the topsoils overlying the chalk are very thin (less than 50cm – it can take 150 years for 1 cm of topsoil to develop, yet this amount can easily be lost in a single rainstorm). Farms in this Catchment are thus very vulnerable to erosion in this way. Irrigation of potatoes in the dry time of year has a double impact here: it washes topsoil away with water that would otherwise sustain chalkstream flows. This is still the case if water is pumped to a storage reservoir during winter, because the aquifer functions to attenuate water for summer flows. There is a pressing need to store water naturally within the floodplain to buttress flows under the stress of abstraction.

Clean water is vital for wildlife as well as for crop irrigation. Both farmers and the community want cleaner water. So this approach is mutually beneficial in that soil protection measures help sustain farming and reduce costs in the long-term as well as underpinning a healthy environment for humans and wildlife.

The value of attenuating water in the system by creating wetlands acts as a buffer against drought and helps reduce flooding by increasing storage capacity. It is in the interests of us all that the landscape is wetter for longer. So long as increased water holding is confined to the existing floodplain there is very little compromise required from existing arable operations that are more viable in the freely drained soils above the valley.

Habitat restoration by reaches

  • Link 4-6 major landowners into a continuous restored length of river, containing clean spawning riffles, juvenile and adult habitats, free fish and eel passage and some functioning water meadows.

Dredging plan

Liaise with EA and IDB to deliver a new philosophy of habitat management. This involves abandoning the routine dredging of whole reaches and replaces it with the use of dredging targeted at specific places where there are large accumulations of silt. The dredging plant could also be usefully employed on conservation works, as a part replacement task. Whilst it is desirable that the excessive silt accumulations are prevented from entering the river system itself by RP measures close to source, it is unrealistic to expect this to be achieved completely. Therefore, there remains a need to address siltation by a combination of re-connection with floodplain, re-meandering, and physical removal in some places.

Abstraction Plan

Help broker abstraction management to provide a compromise between a plentiful supply of water for irrigation with the sustained function of the ecosystem.

Biosecurity Plan

Develop a biosecurity plan according to current best practice. The main aim is to prevent the spread of INNS particularly Himalayan Balsam, Giant Hogweed, Mink and Signal Crayfish. Survey for NNS including plants and mink, which can be done by volunteers.
This plan is particularly important to protect the system as an ark site for white-clawed crayfish that were re-introduced here from the Glaven in Sep 2011. The main threat is deliberate or inadvertent transport of live Signal crayfish from another site. There is also the threat of transmission of crayfish plague via fungus in stock fish and on anglers’ equipment.

Engagement Plan

Write plan as to how and when to engage stakeholders.
Farmers – by letter and leaflet in Winter 2011/2012
Community by public meetings (website, twitter, blog, local press EDP, Binham Local Lynx, Wells “The Quay”
Angling Clubs and syndicates

Research Plan

Ensure that current monitoring continues and the results are used to plan conservation action and publicised to stakeholders:
electric fishing currently done by Hull International Fisheries Institute
Trout spawning habitat and siltation research done by University College London
White-clawed Crayfish Reintroduction done by an EA led consortium
Monitoring of migratory trout and eels, incl genetics of trout population by Southampton University

Timeline

Set monthly or yearly goals for each activity

Budget

Make phased bids to Defra and other sources, possibly including heritage lottery fund
Write plan to secure funding