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Bringing Hitchin’s wild heart back to life

PUBLISHED: 13:26 30 July 2018

View of Purwell Meadows towards The Millstream pub. Its mineral-rich waters support a rich and diverse variety of wildlife (photo: CMS)

View of Purwell Meadows towards The Millstream pub. Its mineral-rich waters support a rich and diverse variety of wildlife (photo: CMS)

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A project to restore a near-dead stretch of the river Hiz is helping enrich the ‘stepping stones’ of four wild oases spanning Hitchin

The river Hiz, the root of the name of Hitchin where it is located, is one of nine chalk rivers in Hertfordshire. Over the past year a section of channel adjacent to Cadwell Lane Playing Field has been brought back to life.

The North Hertfordshire District Council (NHDC) site is between residential and industrial areas, and the section of river that flows past it was extremely shaded resulting in a channel devoid of vegetation, while rubbish had accumulated both in the channel and on the banks. These issues had resulted in the decline of this important wetland habitat.

A project devised by Hertfordshire County Council’s Countryside Management Service (CMS) in partnership with NHDC has focused on improving the river for wildlife.

Over 12 months on, the river has been transformed. Selected trees along the river have been coppiced (cut to ground level to promote new growth) or pollarded (cut above head height) to reduce shade, allowing much needed light into the channel and encouraging the return of characteristic chalk river vegetation such as watercress, water-starwort and water-crowfoot.

Cows at Purwell Meadows - their grazing maintains space for wildflowers (photo: CMS)Cows at Purwell Meadows - their grazing maintains space for wildflowers (photo: CMS)

CMS conservation volunteers have contributed significantly to the project by removing rubbish from the river and its banks. They have also planted 45m of new native hedgerow, installed signage, an interpretation panel, and improved access by installing a new flight of steps. Away from the river, a wildflower margin has been created around the edge of the playing field to enrich the grassland diversity, provide a nectar source for invertebrates and bring a splash of colour to the landscape.

In a relatively short period the river channel has bounced back. It is brimming with in-channel and marginal vegetation – great for invertebrates and fish. Wildlife is slowly returning to the channel with little egrets spotted trying to catch a tasty morsel, which shows that fish numbers are increasing.

Cadwell Lane Playing Field is part of a chain of important wetland wildlife sites which run through the heart of Hitchin along the Purwell Valley, following the rivers Purwell and Hiz. The sites provide people with a great opportunity to explore nature close to the town centre and by improving the watercourse at this location it will provide a ‘stepping stone’ for wildlife along the valley. Within a couple of miles you can visit Purwell Meadows, Walsworth Common, Cadwell Lane Playing Field and Burymead Springs, all owned and managed by NHDC.

Purwell Meadows is furthest south and closest to the source of the Purwell. The clear, mineral-rich waters of the river keep the low lying land of this Local Nature Reserve damp, creating marshy wet grassland and wet hollows that support a rich and distinctive variety of wildlife. The grassland is managed by annual cattle grazing during the summer, which helps maintain the flowering plants. Yellow marsh marigold can be seen in early spring followed by the white of meadow saxifrage on the drier hummocks and the pink of common bistort in abundance by the river. A network of grass paths crosses the site, with information boards at the entrances to make it easy to find your way around.

The Hiz at Cadwell Lane Playing Field after restoration work. Life has rapidly returned (photo: CMS)The Hiz at Cadwell Lane Playing Field after restoration work. Life has rapidly returned (photo: CMS)

Following the Purwell down to Walsworth Common, the landscape once again opens out. During the last few years an overgrown pond has been restored by removing encroaching scrub and silt to improve the site for wildlife. New interpretation, entrance signs and benches have also been installed and access has been improved across the site. This year, the next five-year Greenspace Action Plan for Walsworth Common will be drafted and out for engagement.

North of Cadwell Lane Playing Field is the fourth site in the wetland chain, Burymead Springs, a wildlife haven in an industrial setting, sandwiched between Hitchin railway flyover and a scrap yard. Its reedbed, a rare habitat in Herts, supports breeding reed warblers and sedge warblers in summer, and roosting reed buntings in winter. At the heart of the reedbed is a lagoon created in 1996 by excavating 6,000 tonnes of peat. This valuable open water is excellent for amphibians and birds such as moorhen and mallard.

CMS is setting up a Friends of the Purwell Valley to work across the four sites, carrying out practical conservation tasks and acting as eyes and ears for the valley. For more about this and the sites, visit hertfordshire.gov.uk/cms, email northeast.cms@hertfordshire.gov.uk or call 01992 588433.

Author Ellie Beach is a CMS projects officer

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