With the support and permission of Central Bedfordshire Council, South Bedfordshire Friends of the Earth have been recreating the traditional river banks beside the banks of the River Ouzel upstream of the road bridge opposite Leighton Middle School (close to Bridge Street).
About ten years ago they were inspired by the 1970’s AA “Book of the British Countryside” which had a section on rivers and the flowers that normally grow on the river bank – they noticed that opposite Leighton Middle school there were no wild flowers beside the river, only head-height nettles and Himalayan balsam. So they decided to try to bring back native wildflowers and shrubs, with the help of a personal donation from a local resident.
We started with the bank on the Leighton Middle School side, next to the Flypast Monument. The bank was covered in sycamore trees which support very little wildlife compared with other shrubs, and there were scarcely any other plants. So in 2008, Central Bedfordshire Council cut down the sycamore trees and we planted a native hedge of hawthorn, spindle, wayfaring and guelder rose at the top of the bank, while further down the bank we planted primroses and wild roses. We left the existing elder and apple trees, which provide not only a fantastic display of blossom in the spring and free apples in the autumn for passers-by, but also much-needed nectar and pollen for bees and other pollinators.
We had to spend many summers running up and down the bank to get water from the river to help these shrubs establish, but they are now flourishing. This whole range of plants now provides a wide range of pollen and nectar. Shrubs are as important as flowers for spring food for pollinators. As well as clearing and replanting the bank, right from the start our work has included regular sessions of clearing rubbish out of the river, particularly supermarket trolleys.
The next step was to start work on the opposite bank, on the same side as the Shell garage. The only plants on the bank were nettles and Himalayan balsam, which is a very invasive species that chokes out all other plants and then leaves the banks bare in the winter so that they get washed away. The Environment Agency is keen to encourage people to remove Himalayan balsam to prevent it spreading – one plant can produce several hundred seeds in a season. The Royal Horticultural Society has more information here.
We also spent many hours digging out nettle roots, planting a range of bee friendly plants and shrubs and then weeding round them so that they did not get choked by nettles and grass. The new plants also needed to be watered during the summer while they established; on this riverbank, plants have to survive flooding in the winter and drought conditions in the summer. Leighton Linslade Town Council gave us a grant, which allowed us to plant the upper part of the bank closest to the bridge with primroses and stitchwort, and we planted comfrey, campion and teasel on the lower parts. Further away from the bridge the nettles were head-height, but we slowly dug them up and planted yellow flag Irises, wild angelica, hemp agrimony, knapweed, campion, teasel, oxeye daisies and cornfield annuals.
We also planted guelder rose, wild rose, wayfaring tree and spindle, which are all thriving. It is ongoing work to help the plants establish and keep the nettles and Himalayan balsam at bay and watering the plants in dry times, but slowly the whole ecology of the area is changing, the plants are establishing and, very exciting, other native species are appearing such as water figwort and burdock. It is interesting that wayfaring and spindle trees are doing so well as they normally do well in much drier conditions.
We hold work parties about three times a year, which we advertise on the bridge railings and on our Facebook page, Twitter stream and website. These sessions are for everyone – we have many local residents helping us who have never been involved in conservation before.