Another factor that makes our river so special and magical is the abundance of wildlife. Thanks to their pure, mineral-rich waters and stable temperatures, chalk streams support a particularly interesting abundance of plants and animals. Simon Cooper’s book The Life of a Chalk Stream describes in beautiful detail the way a chalk stream and its wildlife changes during the year. It stresses the importance of managing the flow to maximise biodiversity.
The health of the river Mel is indicated by patches of water crowfoot, a plant that only survives in fast flowing, clean watercourses. Gravel has also been introduced to create riffles to encourage more water invertebrates and to help provide spawning areas for trout.
In the summer of 2017, Bruce Huett counted 37 trout on a walk beside the river. Other fish that can be seen are bullheads (millers’ thumb), sticklebacks and minnows.
The river banks are home to the endangered water vole; if you are lucky, you can hear the ‘plopping’ sound as one slips into the stream.
Birds are common along the river, with 40 species being counted on bird walks. Herons and egrets are somewhat less welcome visitors than the kingfishers that can, with difficulty be spotted flashing past from their nests at Sheen Mill. Unfortunately, they all eat the fish so that trout haven’t been spotted in the river now for several months! Swans used to be seen in the upper stretches and there is still one at Sheene Mill lake. Ducks are regularly seen swimming with their broods and there is a ‘duck crossing’ sign on Station Road near Sheene Mill.
Stockbridge Meadows, through which the Mel flows, has grass snakes and lizards, and buzzards and owls can often be heard calling around this site.
At appropriate times of the year you can spot the insect swarms beloved of fishermen and, early in the morning during the winter, the steamy mist formed because the water is at a constant 10 degrees.
The river also supports a rich plant life, important in its own right and as support for the animal wildlife. The water irises are very pretty when in flower. Water crowfoot has beautiful small white flowers in summer), and — as mentioned — only survives in fast flowing, clean watercourses such as the Mel. Rushes and sedges help to stabilise the banks. Water parsnip lives on the base of the river and needs to be regularly cleared to help maintain a good flow.
We are very fortunate to have the Mel Restoration Group, who over the last ten years have worked diligently to restore the river to its former glory. Years of neglect and ineffective dredging had followed the closure of the mills. By introducing faggot bundles, creating riffles and constricted flows, moving silt to the edges and then planting these edges with irises and sedges, the group has created a more constricted and winding flow for the river.
Two Melbourn residents have described that, when children, they enjoyed the mauve milkmaids (cuckoo flower: Cardamine pratensis), cowslips, kingcups/buttercups and yellow flags that grew along the river (and still do).
NOTE: In the Your Waterlight Stories page, you can now see a set of fascinating botanical illustrations of flowers found alongside the Mel, drawn by local artist Christina Renwick. If you have your own stories or art of local wildlife along the river, do let us know!
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