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Life flows again through lost river of London

Award winning restoration scheme

One of London’s lost rivers has been rescued from subterranean obscurity by an award winning restoration scheme. Its return has transformed what were once featureless playing fields into a watery haven for wildlife and scooped its rescuers the prestigious Living Wetlands Award, run jointly by the RSPB and the Chartered Institution of Water and Environment Management (CIWEM). Like many of the capital’s ancient waterways, the River Quaggy was increasingly channelled along man-made drains and through culverts beneath the ever-growing city.

]The River Quaggy, known as Kyd Brook in its upper reaches, is a tributary of the River Ravensbourne. It flows for 17km from Locksbottom near Orpington in Kent through Bromley and Greenwich to Lewisham town centre. There it joins the Ravensbourne before emptying into the Thames via Deptford Creek. An assessment in the early 1990s found that about a third of the Ravensbourne catchment was in artificial channels and culverts.]Throughout history, wetlands have been lost to agricultural and urban expansion. This drive to tame rivers and ‘reclaim’ wetlands often overlooked the valuable role wetlands play in moderating the water cycle and trapping pollution. The Living Wetlands Award was set up to recognise the work of those who seek to repair some of that damage, to promote community involvement, boost the numbers of breeding wading birds and restore functioning wetlands that bring benefits for people and wildlife.

For years, a section of the river was lost in a tunnel under Sutcliffe Park in Greenwich, until a review of flood defences prompted a dramatic revival in its fortunes. Increasing development in Lewisham and Greenwich had led to an ever-increasing risk of flooding and traditional remedies called for further widening and deepening of the artificial channels that took much of the river’s 17km length. Instead, the Environment Agency chose to bring the river back above ground, cutting a new channel for it through the park using historical information on the Quaggy’s course. A culvert remained below ground to take excess water in times of flood and a new lake was created to take over when that too became full. The park itself was lowered and shaped to create a floodplain where water could collect instead of rushing downstream to flood Lewisham town centre.The reappearance of the Quaggy’s meandering waters has attracted a stunning array of birds and insects, including grey heron, jack snipe, wagtails and large numbers of dragonflies. Many different species of birds have been seen in the park including new wetlands birds including grey heron, swan, moorhen, coot, wading birds such as little ringed plover, common sandpiper, grey, pied and yellow wagtails, linnets, jack snipe hiding in the reeds and goldfinches.

Significant numbers of dragonflies and damselflies surround the wetland pools, around the lake, and along the Quaggy River itself. Emperor dragonflies (Europe's largest species) have colonised the park. The attractive red common darter, black tailed skimmer, common blue and blue tailed damselflies are also present in good numbers using the rapidly growing marginal plants. Within the wildflower meadows all the key wildflower species have now grown including birdsfoot trefoil, sorrel, yarrow, ox-eye daisy and knapweed all giving an impressive show of colour.It is also pulling human visitors into the once neglected park where they can wander paths and boardwalks through reedbeds, wildflower meadows and trees.

Richard Copas from the Environment Agency, said: "Sutcliffe Park is an integral part of the Quaggy flood alleviation scheme. In times of flood, it can now hold the equivalent of 35 Olympic swimming pools of water, reducing the flood risk to 600 homes and businesses in Greenwich and Lewisham. It is fantastic how much the wetland environment has established itself in such a short space of time and some of the species it is now attracting to this part of inner London." He added: "This award means a lot to us. As one of our flagship projects Sutcliffe Park is one off the most dramatic examples of how a flood alleviation scheme can not only reduce the risk of flooding, but also create significant recreational and environmental benefits. We are very proud of it, and thrilled that it has been recognised in this way."Local people have welcomed the change.

Ray Manchester, from the Quaggy Waterways Action Group (QWAG)[ See: http://www.qwag.org.uk/home/ ], which campaigns for the river to be restored, said: “I think it’s brilliant the way it has turned out and the habitats that have been created. Before, it was dead in terms of wildlife and the variety of birds there now is amazing. We were particularly pleased to see kingfishers there.”

Rob Cunningham, head of water policy at the RSPB, said: “This project proves that wetlands can play an important role in reducing urban flooding as well as providing vital natural habitat. It shows that by working with rather than against nature, both people and wildlife can benefit. It is a worthy winner.”

Justin Taberham, Director of Policy at CIWEM said: “This is a fantastic example of an urban restoration project that has multiple benefits for biodiversity, flood defence, recreation and leisure. The judging panel was unanimous in its support for this project to be this year's winner. What was a fairly degraded site has become an urban oasis for wildlife.”

4th July 2014