Posted: Wednesday 19th March 2014

The construction work on a half-a-million-pound river conservation project in Market Harborough has been launched.

The ‘Welland for People and Wildlife’ river restoration works project aims to ‘turn eyesores into central cultural features by putting nature back in the river and give the river back to Market Harborough’.

University of Leicester biologist Professor David Harper, whose career has been devoted to conservation, is leading the project. He is Professor of Limnology & Catchment Sciences in the Department of Biology & at the Centre for Landscape and Climate Research.

He said: “The river, once a major obstacle to cross on the route between northern and southern England when travel was by foot or horseback, with ancient towns such as Market Harborough and Stamford on its banks where all-weather crossing places existed, has lost almost all of its importance over the past 50 years. Deepened, straightened and polluted, its value to people and to wildlife is a just fraction of what it once was.

“The recent severe flooding of major rivers like the Severn and the Thames – far from telling us that we need to have rivers better dredged – actually tells us the exact opposite. The widespread dredging of rivers through the 1960s up to the 1980s together with the continued drainage of farmland, means that water runs rapidly off the catchments and down into the main rivers where it is blocked by our many old and much loved bridges in towns – as well as by high tides – and then floods them. If we managed our river catchments sensibly, we would pay farmers to store and hold back rainwater, not get rid of it as fast as possible, so that heavy rainstorms result in slow release of water down into river channels, so the high flood peaks are avoided.

“The Welland and its tributaries now also fail to meet a new legal standard, called, ‘Good Ecological Status’. This is because when the river was turned into a large drain from Market Harborough to the sea in the 1960s by engineering schemes, they almost totally removed the wildlife and hence ecological value of the river.

“Over the past 75 years in addition, all houses no matter how remote, have benefitted from running water and flush toilets. The unplanned consequence of that is that phosphorus – a valuable fertiliser and essential compound for human health when it is in the right place – widely pollutes our watercourses from treated sewage or septic tank effluents. With the river turned into a drain instead of a natural river, its wildlife – particularly the smallest microscopic forms at the base of the food chain – can no longer purify the water so effectively because it flows too fast and they don’t have time”

The “Welland for People and Wildlife” partnership project will restore the River Welland throughout the town. In it upper part, it runs for through Welland Park with a riverside walk upgraded as a Millennium Path.

Professor Harper added: “Success will be apparent when sightings of otters and kingfishers are too frequent for the newspapers and radio to bother with the reports; when unusual damselflies such as the ‘white-legged’ are seen patrolling territories along the banks in the summer and people’s idea of a good summer afternoon is to walk along the river bank watching children paddling in the gravels and shrieking with delight.”

The project has come about after a new charitable company was set up with the University’s help. The Welland Rivers Trust, one of over 40 such Trusts trying to bring vitality back to Britain’s rivers, seeks to make people aware of the river and its uses; to restore its lost natural value and to help people to use the river sustainably. Professor Harper is also the Trust’s Honorary Secretary.

Professor Harper and the Welland Rivers Trust, working with the Innovations Partnership team of the University’s Enterprise & Business Development Office, submitted the application to Defra’s Catchment Restoration Fund to win the money for the Harborough restoration project. The bid was also made in partnership with the University’s new Centre for Landscape & Climate Research, The Environment Agency and Harborough District Council.

Professor Harper said: “This is another good example of the University reaching out to the community and using its skills to benefit people and nature in the counties that surround it.”

Innovation Partnerships is a University of Leicester scheme, part-financed by the European Regional Development Fund, it can offers up to 100% funded support to qualifying SMEs in the East Midlands to tackle some of the major resource efficiency challenges of today such as reducing energy and materials consumption, using sustainable materials and energy sources to optimise their carbon footprint.

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