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Not all heroes wear capes – some wear waders

VOLUNTEERS working in the River Mease have put in more than 400 hours of ‘balsam bashing’ to help protect their local environment.

Lead volunteer Jan Cope and her dedicated team have been working with local rivers charity Trent Rivers Trust to remove Himalayan balsam in their local area – a harmful non-native species which chokes native plants and causes damaging soil erosion.

Thanks to a relentless two-year push, Jan and a small group of volunteers of their local river in the Ashby de la Zouch, Packington and Measham area are edging closer to the eradication of Himalayan balsam from the river. Their work helps to protect a watercourse designated as a site of special scientific interest (SSSI) and a special area of conservation (SAC) due to its natural features and unique wildlife, including otters, bullheads and the rare spined loach.

Himalayan balsam spreads rapidly, with each plant able to produce up to 800 seeds. It can grow in a variety of conditions and its height means it quickly dominates and chokes out native wildflowers and other species. When the annual plant dies back, it leaves riverbanks vulnerable to erosion, leading to poorer water quality and habitat.

This year, volunteers worked on a 12+ km stretch of the river and spent 400+ hours bashing balsam to stop it from spreading further downstream. Working from summer to autumn, volunteers visited the river on 80 occasions and also cleared over 22 bags of litter in the process.

Jan Cope, Trent Rivers Trust River Mease volunteer says:

The river Mease is a protected river, with remarkable natural features and wildlife. Having spent 40 years of my professional career supporting its recovery, I know the river and I don’t plan to stop during my retirement. It’s rewarding being out on the river and seeing the difference this work makes.

Working their way down from the Mease’s headwaters, Jan and a group of regular volunteers removed balsam to reduce the supply of seeds from upstream, as the species largely relies on flowing water to spread. The plant’s explosive plant pods can propel seeds for up to three meters. Depending on its location, it can either reach the water directly, or result in seeds being picked up during high flows. Further downstream, new plants establish in flood plains, or on the river bank, spreading further from there.

In the Mease, the pink, up to 2.5-metre-tall plant can be found as far as the river’s source at Gilwiskaw Brook and its removal requires perseverance.

Jan adds:

Himalayan balsam seeds can lay dormant for up to three years, so it is a matter of coming back to completely remove the plant from the river. We removed thousands of plants this year and the regrowth wasn’t quite as overwhelming, compared to when we started. It is a job that takes quite a bit of commitment and we are up for it.

Ruth Needham, Head of Landscapes and Partnerships says:

We’re hugely grateful to our volunteers who have done a spectacular job at looking after the Mease. Balsam is hugely damaging to a riverbank; its shallow roots mean it’s quite easy to pull up, it’s a great activity for local people to get involved with Jan and the other volunteers have given us a hand on many other projects in and around the river. Next year, we’re looking to clear the headwaters, hopefully, for the last time in the foreseeable future and to then move further downstream, where a few more patches remain.

Trent Rivers Trust welcomes new volunteers who want to support the charity’s work in the Mease and beyond. If you would like to get involved, please email enquiries@trentriverstrust.org

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