River slowly winds its way back to life

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The Independent Online
Richard Morris is hoping for a re-run of the fabled winter of 1947, though it is not so much the several feet of snow he wants as the floods that would inevitably follow.

The melt water would be the ideal natural ally in the restoration of a 1.5-mile stretch of the River Cole, a tributary of the Thames on the Oxfordshire-Wiltshire border.

Transformation of the river, on the National Trust's Coleshill estate, is already well under way. It is barely recognisable from the "dreary trickle" in the bottom of a drainage ditch familiar to Mr Morris, the estate land agent.

At a cost of pounds 250,000, shared by the European Union and the Environment Agency, the Cole has been re-engineered, introducing meanders and loops, shallows, undercut banks and gravel riffles. The aim is to restore the river to a natural winding course destroyed by canalisation in the 1970s.

Flooding will be allowed on adjacent fields to provide the wet ground necessary for feeding waders such as curlew and redshank. A remaining five-acre meadow where knapweed and purple-flowered snake's head fritillary still grow will be extended over 20 acres of former arable land.

Elsewhere on the 100 acres of flood plain, silage fields will be managed without fertilizers and the grass cut later in the summer to allow birds to nest successfully.

"It's been a long haul since the planning stage but now it is starting to look superb," Mr Morris said. "The meanders are back in the river, young willows and water plants are getting established, we have seen the first snipe for a long time and there seem to be more kingfishers. People who walk here in the spring will see the last scars of the construction, but they will also see dace and chub holding themselves in the current. And you can hear the river flowing over the gravel rather than it sulking in the bottom of a ditch."

A further pounds 100,000, from the same sources, will go towards an extensive scientific monitoring programme by Pond Action of Oxford Brookes University.

The Cole is one of two schemes covered by the River Restoration Project. English Nature and the Countryside Commission are among the partners. The other scheme is an urban site on the River Skerne, near Darlington.

Ninety-five per cent of the country's rivers have had their flows, wildlife and vegetation altered by drainage, agriculture and the taming hand of man. The Cole is known as a "flashy" river because of the sudden rushes of rainwater off the tarmac and concrete of the Swindon area.

Mr Morris hopes careful monitoring will demonstrate that rivers and their settings can be restored and plants and wildlife re-established. It will be decades before the hay meadows are back to their full flower-rich glory but it may not be long before the otter is back beneath the willows of Coleshill.