Freeman’s Marsh and its fragile Ecosystem.

on 16 April 2013.

Four years ago the Trustees of the Town & Manor of Hungerford launched a long term programme of conservation with active and financial support from Natural England, Environment Agency and West Berks Council.

The Trustees had been advised of the continuing depletion of wild bird and animal populations, rising pollution of the rivers and streams, vandalism of the water courses and structures and concern for the welfare of the rare plants.

Damage to the health of both of the rivers and the plants over the years has at least been halted and certainly the river margins have become well established with indigenous plants, the streams are again producing large quantities of river weed such as crowfoot, starwort and water cress.

A recent survey of the water vole populations returned a rising population once again. Water voles are an indicator of high quality environment and are now a threatened wild animal and they have not survived in east of the county.

Also less visible there are probably two pairs of otters who travel through the Marsh.

Wild birds remain a feature of the Marsh and populations flourish where there are low numbers of visitors, conversely areas where there is higher numbers of visitors then bird numbers drop substantially. This was well demonstrated by a year long survey was carried out by Cambridge veterinary student George Mayes in 2008.

A complete wild bird survey commenced in 2012 by qualified British Ornithological Trust members will continue with ringing and recording.

It is noticeable that ground nesting bird populations are still suffering in the area north of the canal which is government designated as SSSI, “Site of Special Scientific Interest” where dogs are not permitted to run free but while in the area should be on a lead of not more than 2 meters in length during the nesting season from 1st March and 31st July each year.

There has been a concession by Natural England for walkers who wish their dogs a free run in the area south of the canal and also this applies to the Common Port Down. The planned work and re-construction in and around the rivers and canal is now complete. Fencing off of the rivers and streams to prevent cattle and dogs entering the water, re-building of the Middle Hatches, building groynes, replacing lost gravel in the fords and scrub clearing and perennial weed control by mechanised cutting.

Further scrub clearance work is required and a major bank repair downstream of the Ash Pool will be put in hand when the water levels subside. In the same area there is planned re-alignment of the public footpath and rolling in hardcore. When the land has dried materials will be brought in and work will commence. This is not possible at the time of writing.

So what about all this wet weather 159% above the annual rainfall for the West Thames region? The rivers have been well cleared of silt, algae and the dilution for the moment has made pollution just history. Just look at the canal, it too is almost “gin clear” what a remarkable change. On the other hand every crayfish burrow has been washed with flood water for months and bank repairs will be a major and costly job for the next year or two whatever the weather.

River life will multiple again hundred fold with clean river gravel bottoms and the wading birds, kingfishers and water voles will enjoy a period of plenty. The trout and the grayling will have even more shrimp, caddis and fly life in their daily diet.

So to all who use and value Freeman’s Marsh let us look forward to a good spring and summer season.

Robert W. James. Trustee of the Town & Manor of Hungerford

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