Return of the Urban Conclave - even bigger and better than the original?


Friday February 25th through to Monday the 28th saw a massive payoff for over 2 years' worth of planning, design proposals, negotiation and persistance (not only on my part, but on the part of the Wandle Trust - in particular Bella Davies and Theo Pike). Members of the local E.A. fisheries team (including Tanya Houston) also pushed forward the important removal of several barriers to trout migration - which will soon see a fish pass added to a large weir to complement the lowering/removal of 3 other weirs. Finally, we had the go ahead to begin the creation of good quality spawning, juvenile and adult trout habitat patches in the upper reaches of the Carshalton arm of the River Wandle: the next step in returning truly wild self-sustaining trout populations since their demise in the polluted waters of the 1930s.

Whilst seeking to arrange this year's "Trout in the Town Urban River Champion's Conclave", the thought occurred that it would be incredibly fitting to share the groundbreaking Wandle works with the dedicated members of "Trout in the Town" branches from urban rivers across the UK. So began the plan to arrange a two-day conference and combine it with a Wild Trout Trust "Practical Visit" habitat works training event for local (and not-so-local) volunteers. Ambitious? You bet. Especially when booking "value for money" conference and accommodation facilities using WTT charitable funding(sponsored by the Esmée Fairbairn foundation) in the Wimbledon area. Since people were travelling from far and wide, I didn't want cost of accommodation to be a barrier to anyone attending the event - so B and B were free to participants (unless they willing to cover their own costs). However, Theo came up trumps with a suggestion to use the Merton Abbey Mills complex which was both convenient and surprisingly reasonably priced. Meanwhile, on the habitat works preparation front - we were anxiously awaiting delivery of the thick wad of schematic plans showing the position of any below-ground "service pipes" (i.e. electricity, sewerage, telecommunications) that could prove ticklish if we accidentally skewered any with a 2-m long steel rebar pin...

Actually, for its proper context, great credit must be given to the E.A. for"breaking out" this section of river in the first place; imprisoned as it was in a concrete box on the site of an old chemical works.
The section of River Wandle we were to work on as it was in the early 1990's

Of course, the fantastic efforts over more than 10 years of the Wandle Trust to care for the whole river also cannot be underestimated. Concerns over water quality and quantity could not have been allayed without the invertebrate monitoring (Riverfly Partnership) and the survival and fitness of the "Trout in the Classroom" fish - both programmes run so brilliantly by the Wandle Trust.
Pupils release their "Trout in the Classroom" fish into the Wandle

So - having travelled down from Sheffield with SPRITE members Paul and Nick, we installed ourselves in the William Morris pub on the Friday evening to await the arrival of the merry band of Trout in the Town members old and new. We had representatives from projects in Huddersfield, Sheffield, Nottinghamshire, Wigan, Birmingham, Manchester, Derbyshire and London (with apologies from Lancashire Colne, Glazert near Glasgow and London's River Cray). Introductions made, the conversation flowed as easily as one might expect when you unite a bunch of obsessives all working on the same problems.
Charles Rangeley Wilson gives the opening talk of the 2011 Conclave

Following a rousing introduction by Wild Trout Trust director Shaun Leonard, the Saturday programme was kicked off by an inspirational and personal perspective from Wild Trout Trust President, author, photographer, film-maker and (accidental) angler Charles Rangeley Wilson - who, by greatly auspicious coincidence, had caught his first (and to date only) Wandle trout after many years of trying not 50 yards from the conference venue. So began a day of accounts from representatives of each local branch - both giving background to their own aspirations as well as sharing lessons learned the hard way.
Charles Rangeley Wilson with his Wandle Trout photographed by David Sanderson. The conference venue is attached to the Mill Wheel in the background!

Food and liquid refreshment was amply provided by the William Morris staff at regular intervals and a great many discussions and friendships were forged across all groups throughout the day. These discussions and cross-group problem solving activities continued well into the night over dinner and drinks (even finding time to take in the Rugby game at 5pm). A great day.
Tea breaks were busy with discussions

Sunday saw the whole thing stepped up a notch with the combining of local volunteers with conference delegates to make a workforce group 49-strong to be trained by Andy Thomas and myself (Wild Trout Trust) with Bella Davies and Theo Pike (Wandle Trust) and Wild Trout Trust Director Shaun Leonard marshalling the volunteers. Amongst the people getting their hands and waders dirty was local MP Tom Brake who turned out to be remarkably handy with a bow saw.
The massed throng ready to get to work

Particularly gratifying for me was the sight of volunteers (who half an hour prior to our guided river walk and training talk knew nothing of trout habitat requirements and only a little about stream ecology) expertly and correctly fielding questions from passing dog walkers and local residents. At least half of the true value of a Wild Trout Trust Practical Visit is its educational value - not just the physical habitat restoration itself.
Here I explain how to count to 10 using only your fingers

The habitat works that we completed used a combination of logs, brash and metal pins to produce scoured spawning gravels, holding lies for adult trout and cover suitable for juvenile life stages of trout.

Installation of scour-producing log placements (above) and low-level brash shelter (below)

A hugely important aspect of these works is also the simple monitoring techniques used to track the physical effect of each structure.
Theo and Bella taking depth measurements relative to a constant point (datum) in order to track impact of structure on stream bed

The Monday following the practical works saw formal surveying and measurements carried out to complement those undertaken during the works and was followed up by an assessment and discussion with regional E.A. representatives of Flood Risk Management, Development Control and Fisheries who approved the works (there was still a chance that we would have to remove any structures that caused undue concern in this heavily urbanised environment).

When combined with the removal of 5 key barriers (3 already tackled, a fish pass imminent on a 4th and a project this year to tackle the 5th) these works pave the way for the seeding of the river with wild trout parr from a suitable donor river. This will tie in with the shift from using fertile hatchery fish in the "Trout in the Classroom" projects to sterile fish in the near future - a move that will ensure the greatest possible genetic diversity (and hence adaptability) of the self-sustaining trout within the Wandle.
Lowered and "notched" weir on the Wandle, showing removal of silt upstream of the previous barrier to reveal clean gravel and potential spawning gravel scouring and sorting downstream. The position of the notch is also promoting a more meandering flow

One word was used repeatedly (and without prompts from me!) over the course of the Conclave and the Practical Visit: "inspirational" - and I would like to add my own use of that word when applied to all Conclave participants and volunteers from each and every Trout in the Town project. I am in awe of all your undertakings and it is a privilege for me to work on your behalf.

Volunteers installing habitat works on the site of the old chemical works
Andy Thomas creating "cover logs" to produce lies for adult trout


Mike Duddy from the Salford Friendly Anglers Trout in the Town group with a wild fish that, sadly, was wiped out by pollution along with the rest of the river inhabitants for miles along a Manchester urban stream soon after this photo was taken. Trout in the Town groups will fight to prevent such disasters in the future