London's Lost Trout River Reborn

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Suttee says all the river needed to complete its recuperation was a helping hand from local people. He involved them through his environmental nonprofit, the Jet Set Club. ('Jet Set' stands for Junior Environmental Taskforce and Senior Environmental Taskforce.)

"Senior members have regular clean-up days," Suttee said. "We've pulled out supermarket trolleys, motorbikes, safes, and even guns. You wouldn't believe what's in that river."

Meanwhile the job of helping restore the Wandle's once-famous brown trout has been given to local schoolkids. They are supplied with specially adapted tanks to rear the fish from eggs to fry. These classroom trout are then released in the neighboring river.

The club's president is David Bellamy, Britain's best-known environmentalist. He grew up along the banks of the Wandle and says its wildlife inspired his choice of career.

As the first batch of classroom trout were set free, he added: "Thanks to the hard work of local people and Thames Water the children and trout of the Wandle Valley will soon be swimming together again."

The classroom trout project is the first outside North America. The scheme isn't intended as a restocking program—instead it should kick start natural regeneration—but designed to re-engage streetwise youngsters with the natural world.

"So many children today live their lives in computer-generated worlds of violence and confrontation," said Suttee. "The aim is to rekindle a hands-on relationship with their unique and often threatened environment."

The Jet Set Club will provide trout-rearing tanks to 20 different schools each year. Suttee hopes eventually to involve over 300 schools throughout the Wandle Valley.

Water meadows

Trout aren't the only aquatic creatures being encouraged to return to the city. Where possible the river is now allowed to flood in winter, creating water meadows that attract many different wildfowl.

Another project involves one of Britain's most endangered mammals.

Water voles, small rodents closely related to muskrats and lemmings and which live only along clear, unpolluted rivers and streams, have been decimated by non-native mink which originally escaped from fur farms. These voracious predators have slashed water vole numbers from nine million 20 years ago to just 800,000.

Conservationists believe the Wandle can become an important safe-haven for the species. Ironically, the river's urban surroundings could be the key to a successful reintroduction.

"The Wandle's catchment area is so built up that there are no real access routes for mink," said Chris Strachan, water vole project officer at London Wildlife Trust. "Besides, mink are wary of humans and tend to avoid cities."

Strachan is currently overseeing habitat improvement work along the river. This mainly involves removing bricks and other manmade structures that prevent water voles digging their riverbank burrows.

The first animals are due to be released next spring—just one year on from the trout.

Alan Suttee already has other plans for his eager band of helpers.

"There's work still to be done," he said. "This should be a major breeding stream for salmon. We need to sort out culverts, weirs, and other obstacles that impede their passage. If in ten years' time the biggest problem we have is salmon poaching, then I'll be a very happy man."

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