London's Lost Trout River Reborn

James Owen
for National Geographic News
April 21, 2003
City schoolkids have added the last, vital ingredient to complete the Wandle's revival. Kingfishers, minnows and mayflies had already returned to a river that runs through a city of over nine million people. All that was needed were some trout.

Last month brown trout were released into the Wandle for first time in 100 years. The symbolic gesture was made by local classmates who reared the fish in special aquariums at school. After centuries of abuse and neglect, Londoners are learning to treasure this special river.

The Wandle flows through south London, meeting the River Thames at the heart of Europe's largest city. It was once the best trout river in Britain, prized by anglers for the size of its fish. Even the loss of an eye and an arm didn't stop Lord Nelson fishing here two centuries ago, before annihilating Napoleon's fleet at the battle of Trafalgar.

But the Wandle had other attractions. It's steep passage and swift flows were harnessed to power water mills producing everything from silk and snuff to copper and gunpowder. An 11-mile (18-kilometer) section once supported over 90 mills, making it one of the hardest-worked rivers in the world.

As industrial processes developed, so the pollution worsened. By the 20th century the river was all but dead.

This is how local angler Alan Suttee remembers it.

"In the late 1960s the Wandle was officially designated an open sewer," he said. "And in the 70s I remember it running red, pink, or blue, depending on what dye they were using in the local tanneries."

But there has been a remarkable turnaround in the Wandle's fortunes. This can be traced back to the privatization of Britain's water industry ten years ago. Since then Thames Water has ploughed billions of dollars into improving water quality.

Anglers now measure the Wandle's recovery by the size of the fish they catch.

Crawling with bugs

"We've been getting huge barbel, chub, perch, and rudd," said Suttee. "There's so much food in the river these days. If you pull out a handful of aquatic weed, it's crawling with shrimps and other bugs."

Even an Atlantic salmon was caught recently in the outflow of a sewage treatment plant.

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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