A few years ago the River Wye was voted the country’s favourite river (2010). It rises high up on the slopes of Plynlimon, flows down through the moors, over falls, through stunning gorges, gentle sheep country (picking up equally beautiful tributaries) out of the Welsh stone into the lush pasture and plough land of Herefordshire to cut through the rock again at Symonds Yat, to deliver to the tide of the Bristol Channel. Over 1,000 miles of river and stream bank brimming with wildlife from end to end – you would think.
But, the river suffers – the things we can’t see : the abstraction, the chemicals, the fertilizers, the pesticides, the sewage – all are killing that river by a thousand cuts.
The things we can see are sinuously wrapped around the roots and stones, hanging from the tree branches over the water, scattered along the high water mark of the last flood or tipped in down the banks. The birds die, the fish are killed, green algae oozes and sharp objects penetrate the canoes, the waders and those little paddling feet.
We had to do something about it – The Wye and Usk Foundation with the help of Keep Wales Tidy, River Wye Preservation Trust and many others have taken 10 years to clear just over half of it. The first few years small teams, often with diggers, would clear particularly bad areas – bad fly tips, the worst dumps, piles of cars etc.. Over the last 3 years a more concentrated effort has been made to clear 100 miles of river and stream a year.
We must work with the weather and the seasons – February to the end of April gives us a window that is after most of the winter floods and before the undergrowth grows up and birds start nesting. It sometimes gets too dangerous with the rivers in flood or the roads blocked by snow.
The job involves looking at the map and choosing a length of river. Long hours on the phone getting permission from the many farmers, riparian owners and other interested parties – more map work, decide where to meet, make lunch, check the weather forecast, the water levels, pick up a car full, drive perhaps 40 miles, meet up with the others – litter pickers, bags, instructions, H&S, maps again — ‘you do that bank from that bridge down to that bridge; you do from that bridge, on the other bank, up to the road’ etc, etc. on and on.
We meet up a few hours later, have a sandwich and listen to the chatter – did you see the dipper/the peregrine/the salmon ? Or I found an oven/a set of stairs/a rubber duck ! Eventually we collect up the rubbish for disposal by the council and perhaps get a group photo. Often it’s 30 sacks of litter with perhaps 60% coming from farming origin, numerous tyres, drums (sadly sometimes with concentrate still in them), buckets, batteries and other delights. Everyone is tired and dirty but strangely satisfied that a little bit more has been done.
So far, over 500 volunteers have cleared well over 600 miles of riverbank of 2,200 odd bags/items of rubbish. They all have a passion for the river.