River Teign Restoration Project lands massive Heritage Lottery grant

Eric Partridge
Roger Furniss, Geoff Stephens and David West of the river teign restoration project © Chris Saville

The River Teign Restoration Project is a four-year river conservation project centred around improving the water quality of the river and its tributaries for migratory fish species particularly salmon and seatrout.

The project, which began in February this year, has been made possible thanks to a massive grant of £243,100 awarded by The National Lottery Heritage Fund.

Led by the Teign Angling & Conservation Association (TACA), the Restoration Project is a partnership between the National Trust, Westcountry Rivers Trust, Environment Agency, MED Theatre and the internationally renowned artist Peter Randall-Page.

In announcing the Heritage Fund award at the Project’s launch in Bovey Tracey last month, Andrew North, Senior Business Manager for the National Lottery Heritage Fund said: “I live locally and it’s great to see money going to fantastic projects like this and it’s all made possible because people buy lottery tickets. We are one of the 13 distributors of lottery cash and we’re placing increasing importance on landscape and heritage projects.

‘In the last year or so the effects of the pandemic really demonstrated how important open spaces, rivers and other natural heritage are to keep us healthy and safe and how important they are to our well-being. The work which has been done in bringing people together to help restore the river environment is fantastic.”

Stuart McLeod, Director England, London & South at The National Lottery Heritage Fund, later added: “Caring for, and having access to our heritage and our natural world will be ever more important as we emerge from the COVID-19 crisis. Thanks to National Lottery players, this project will engage a wide range of people in recording the history of angling on the River Teign and in creating a healthy future for the river and its wildlife.”

Speaking on behalf of the restoration group, project manager Geoff Stephens is keen to establish a volunteer workforce which will be vital to the success of the project. He told The Moorlander: “The aim of the Restoration Project is to help improve the habitat for migratory fish, raise awareness of the river’s importance for wildlife, and the key pressures causing fish declines. A healthy river that is good for fish is good for wildlife, biodiversity, and everything else living in the catchment, including us.

‘Humans are as much a part of the story of a river as the creatures below the surface, and so a big part of this project is making those connections with communities up and down the catchment as well as regional visitors.”

Passionate fly fisherman David West, who is Vice Chair of the Teign Angling & Conservative Association outlined the group’s four-year plan to the invited audience at the launch: “By 2025 we aim to have a team of committed local volunteers acting as River Watchers and ‘adopting’ stretches of river covering the full Teign & Bovey catchment, in other words, our local network of eyes and ears on the ground.

‘These River Watchers will take part in co-ordinated surveys throughout the year including an initiative we are calling Riverfly to undertake invertebrate sampling along with water temperature and water quality recording. Working with other volunteers, the River Watchers will ensure that tributaries are kept clear and provide ideal spawning opportunities.

‘We will develop a database of enthusiastic volunteers who can help with larger conservation projects along the river such as helping the fishing associations and tackling major obstacles. In addition, a comprehensive geographic information system (GIS) will be employed to record historic spawning data and all of our survey work thus enabling a strategic approach to both monitoring and conservation work. It will be a permanent archive for the future, rather than having to rely on fragile maps and the danger of losing valuable, irreplaceable notes. We intend to capture memorabilia and oral histories before they are lost.”

Geoff Stephens expanded on one of the benefits that the GIS system will bring: “One of the first things that we will be using GIS for is to plot the location of ‘redds’, the nest of a salmon which is a furrow in the bed of the river where the female Salmon lays her eggs. Over recent years this has been done by physically walking the river, identifying the redds and noting them down, but now with the introduction of this new GIS technology it will make that task easier and more accurate.”

Working in partnership with the Westcountry Rivers Trust (WRT) the Restoration Project will undertake juvenile fish survey work on at least 40 sites within the catchment area, while all potential sources of pollution will be recorded and regularly monitored.

It is hoped that working with the Environment Agency (EA) and WRT on practical improvements to structures will make the upstream and downstream migration easier for salmon and sea trout.

“We intend to make more people, visitors and locals, aware of the special value and also the vulnerability of the River Teign and its fish,” continued David. “And thanks to the support of The National Trust, the Gun Room at Castle Drogo will be an inspiring place for all ages to learn about the river, its past and future importance.”

Ultimately the group hopes to publish a book which captures the essence of why the river is so special and explain its unique angling heritage. In the meantime a range of programmes through local schools will engage the younger element to become more aware of their surroundings with river-based educational activities. Along the river bank there is already a network of engravings inspired by children showing the fish and the river in drawings and verse.

Local communities, as a whole, can discover more about their river through art, verse and community plays such as the initiative that has been introduced with the MED Theatre who will be holding a number of community plays in September based around ‘summer in the West Country’.

So just how or why the water quality of the River Teign has deteriorated over recent years to the extent that if nothing is done to address the problem then the salmon could be wiped out from the water altogether as spawning conditions becomes unsustainable, with the knock on effect that angling as a pastime is in danger of becoming a thing of the past too?

There’s no single answer. Climate change, sewage discharges, pollution, a lack of river management, vandalism and general abuse are all cited, but one really big issue is that of dogs using the river, as David West explains. “It’s not that we’re anti-dogs because we’re not, I have a spaniel but I now know that after any treatment for ticks, for example, he shouldn’t go in the river for a number of weeks. I didn’t know that before but I do now so I’m as guilty as everyone else but we need to find a way of educating dog owners who use the River Teign as a dog wash to the fact that if you’ve recently treated your dog on the back of the neck for ticks then that is a broad spectrum insecticide… which you are about to put into the water environment.”

Another reason for the degradation is discharge into the river from the old style sewage treatment plants dotted along the river with water authorities now being allowed to filter treated sewage into the UK river network at certain times.

David added. “The trouble with some of these older sewage plants is that if there’s too much discharge into the river then environmentally, that’s a major issue. Although the sewage is treated before it enters the river system, the process doesn’t eliminate everything that can affect the quality of the water and ultimately have a detrimental effect on the wildlife and the invertebrates that the fish rely on as their food source.”

Project Chairman, Roger Finnis illustrated that the problem isn’t just confined to the River Teign. “Another problem area identified locally is in the River Dart in Princetown where due to drug use at Dartmoor Prison the amount of drug residue seeping into the water is having a massive detrimental effect of the water quality there while in other areas of the UK some coarse fish have actually changed gender because of the amount of contraceptive pill residue that’s in the effluence discharged by sewage treatment works.”

Local angler Mike Weaver, who has been fishing the River Teign for over 50 years has recorded the worrying decline in invertebrates both in numbers and the range of species during that time due to the drop in water quality. He said: “Superficially the Teign looks perfect but it’s going to be a huge challenge to restore the river to revive the population of the trout and salmon.”

But at least that challenge has now been recognised having launched its four year revival plan and the Restoration Project now has every chance of success, thanks in the main to National Lottery heritage funding, with the passionate team of project leaders, supporters and volunteers,.

For more information about this worthwhile restoration project, or if you wish to volunteer as a ‘River Watcher’ then visit www.riverteignrestorationproject.co.uk for details.

Local Life