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Heavy horse Blue lends a helping hand to improve a precious habitat for nature

Monday 7th December 2015

Blue and Chris (Credt Tom Marshall)Blue and Chris (Credt Tom Marshall)

For nearly a decade Yorkshire Wildlife Trust has been working hard in East Yorkshire to protect, restore and enhance a precious habitat for wildlife, chalk streams.

Perhaps not a familiar habitat for many of us compared to woodlands and seashores, but chalk streams are hugely important and support a diversity of plants and wildlife, comparable to tropical rainforests.

Take a moment to conjure images from the famous children’s novel The Wind in the Willows; babbling crystal clear streams, part filled with an array of water loving plants, river banks and channels providing shelter for freshwater fish such as brown trout, brook lamprey and bullhead. Winged insects such as mayfly and damselfly skimming over the water surface, along with the incandescent blue flash of kingfisher as it dives nearby for its fishy supper. This is a chalk steam in all its glory.

West Beck, Snakeholm (Credit Jon Traill)

There are only 200 chalk streams found across the world! And England boasts 85%, with the most northerly chalk river system being found in East Yorkshire. When rain falls on the Yorkshire Wolds, most of it doesn’t flow over ground. Instead, it seeps through the underlying chalk to be stored deep underground. This aquifer slowly fills over many years and once full, the water is pushed out through the ground as springs. Having been filtered so slowly this water has an incredible chemical quality that injects life into many picture perfect chalk streams.

To help keep chalk streams healthy takes a great deal of work both along the streams themselves and across the wider catchment. Improving chalk streams takes many shapes and none so lovable as heavy horse Blue and his owner Chris Wadsworth, who have been called upon to help.

Yorkshire Wildlife Trust, East Yorkshire Rivers Trust (EYRT), West Beck Preservation Society (fly fishing club) in addition to support from Environment Agency and Natural England have called upon Blue to do a very special task – ‘gravel raking.’

Yorkshire Wildlife Trust’s, Living Landscape Manager Jon Traill explains: “Gravel raking using heavy horses is employed fairly frequently on southern chalk streams as a management tool, but is rarely used on our most northerly chalk streams. This pilot will allow us to see how it works and if all goes well we hope to use the technique again in future years”.

Over two days Blue and Chris will be working along a section of the chalk stream within the Snakeholm area of East Yorkshire, close to the village of Wansford, near Driffield.

Heavy horse Blue with his owner Chris at Skerne Wetlands (Credit Tom Marshall)

Jon said: “Blue will be pulling a modified rake over the chalk and stone bed within the West Beck Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI). Gravel raking will help to open up the gravels, liberating the trapped silt. Nice open gravels is just the sort of habitat required by many fish species for spawning. Species like brown trout, bullhead, lamprey and grayling will all be set to benefit from the work, along with many other plants and animals.

The heavy horse team will also be working with a local tree surgeon who shall be carrying out some tree maintenance on the more mature willows. Blue shall be moving the larger logs to appropriate places on the river where we want to install flow deflectors and carry out bank restoration, to help species like otter and water vole”.

This new venture forms part of a wider programme of conservation work led by Yorkshire Wildlife Trust called Crystal Clear.

Jon continued: “In 2013 the Trust received a grant from the WREN Biodiversity Action Fund. Together with funding from the Environment Agency we have been working to restore and enhance over 8km of chalk stream habitat.

At Skerne Wetlands we have been restoring and recreating wet woodland, reedbed, fen and open water habitats to compliment the southern end of the West Beck SSSI chalk stream. New habitats are being created and restored for species such as water vole, grass snake, frogs and toads, barn owl, waterfowl and waders such as snipe”.

If you would like to help with the development of Skerne Wetlands or learn more about the work Yorkshire Wildlife Trust is carrying out, you can join in with practical workdays and walks at this beautiful site. Visit our volunteering page or our events page.


Tagged with: Living Landscapes