Historic Oxfordshire and Wiltshire floodplains restored for wildlife

13th March 2023

Freshwater Habitats Trust and the National Trust are working together to restore floodplain habitats for freshwater plants and animals at the Coleshill estate, which borders Oxfordshire and Wiltshire. By returning the site’s historic floodplains to a more natural state, the two charities are helping to create a new wetland corridor for wildlife along the River Cole.

Funded by the Government’s Green Recovery Challenge Fund, the project is part of Freshwater Habitats Trust’s vision to build a national network of clean freshwater and wetland habitats for wildlife. The creation of the Freshwater Network focuses initially on Oxfordshire, where the charity is based.

Freshwater Habitats Trust originally worked with the National Trust at Coleshill in the mid-1990s, when the two organisations were part of an international team that restored a stretch of river. This involved  creating a winding channel to repair the damage caused by historic straightening of the river to drain its floodplain for agriculture.

Now, nearly 30 years later, the two organisations are collaborating once again to return the river to a more natural state by working on the floodplain. By creating a mosaic of ponds and wetlands, this will add new areas of clean water to the river’s floodplain.

Aerial view of a landscape, including a meandering river and newly dug ponds.

At around 1.4 hectares in size, the new floodplain wetland mosaic is one of the largest so far created by Freshwater Habitats Trust. The new ponds and pools are close to the main river channel so that freshwater plants and animals can easily move between the two – whether by walking, flying or being blown by the wind. However, because they are not directly connected to the river channel they are protected from pollution that still affects the river.

The River Cole forms the county boundary of Wiltshire and Oxfordshire and the new waterbodies to the west of the river are in Wiltshire. Following this successful first stage of work, further new floodplain wetland habitats will be created on the Oxfordshire side of the river later this year.

The Coleshill estate already attracts a variety of wetland birds, and has good populations of Otter and Water Vole, as well other freshwater species, including damselflies like the Banded Demoiselle, which depends on running water. With a larger network of clean, unpolluted waterbodies, the estate is set to attract higher numbers of these species as well as new wildlife, including rare and threatened freshwater and wetland plants.

The new ponds and wetlands have been designed around a range of endangered freshwater and wetland plants that have disappeared from much of Thames Valley, such as Creeping Marshwort, Tubular Water-dropwort and Water Violet. Some of these plant species may colonise the site naturally, but with no populations currently in the surrounding countryside, it is likely that they will need to be introduced to the site by planting.

Two men standing by a waterbody, one pointing to something in the distance

Thanks to its extensive parkland, the Coleshill estate is a popular visitor attraction. Developed following consultation with the local Parish Council, the new habitats are on the estate’s private land, which is traditionally farmed and grazed by cattle. However, the team behind the project expects visitors to see an increase in wildlife – including birdlife – across the estate and is planning to run guided walks on the restored floodplain.

David Morris of Freshwater Habitats Trust said: “These new habitats will transform the site and we expect to see a much more diverse range of wetland wildlife here over the coming months and years. Freshwater Habitats Trust will be monitoring water quality and levels to see how the site responds to these new habitats. We’ll also be closely tracking species, particularly rare wetland plants, which we hope will recolonise the historic floodplains, on which they once thrived.

“We’re delighted to have had the opportunity to work with the National Trust on this project and we really look forward to seeing what wildlife it attracts. We also hope that this project will inspire others to restore historic floodplains and create more high-quality freshwater habitats.”

Richard Watson of the National Trust said: “We want to create more diverse wildlife habitats across the estate, so it’s great to have Freshwater Habitats Trust’s support and expertise. It’s exciting to see the habitat creation work underway and we’re already seeing an increase in birds, such as Lapwing and Snipe, on the estate, as well as damselflies and dragonflies. We know that mammals, including Otters and Water Voles, use the river, so hopefully this development will encourage them to spread into a wider area.

“Our ultimate aim is to create a wildlife corridor along the river starting in Swindon to where the River Cole joins the Thames at Lechlade. This floodplain restoration work is a key step towards that goal.”

Two men standing in a shallow waterbody, looking at plants and invertebrates in the water.

Professor Jeremy Biggs, CEO of Freshwater Habitats Trust added: “It’s so rewarding to return to the Coleshill estate and enhance this beautiful estate for local wildlife. Freshwater biodiversity has never faced greater threats, but by creating and restoring habitats, we can make a real difference and help to reverse the decline.

“This is all part of our ambitious plans to create the Freshwater Network: a national network of wilder, wetter, cleaner, connected freshwaters. We’re delighted that the National Trust is working with us as we start to make that vision a reality.”