he sixth Connecting the Culm Forum, hosted by the excellent folk at Cullompton Community Centre, saw nearly 100 people gather for a fascinating evening focusing on nature recovery on the Culm. The topics covered wove a story of a river that has been, and still is, beset by change from human interventions, and yet still offers us hope for a better future. You can see the presentations in our Library, but here’s a quick overview for those who weren’t able to make this very special evening.

Tim Youngs, Manager of the Blackdown Hills National Landscape, gave an introduction and overview of the Connecting the Culm project. He introduced the speakers, starting with Julian Payne, a Geomorphologist for the Environment Agency. Julian explained how, 2000 years ago, the Culm would have flowed through a broad, marshy floodplain that absorbed the power of floods. As agriculture spread widely across the landscape, soil was eroded off the fields and, by around 500 years ago, the floodplain had been covered by a thick layer of soil. Since then further drainage and agricultural improvements mean that floodwaters have fewer places to go and so, confined to the river, they carve the river bed deeper and deeper. Restoring the original shallow river channel that can easily spill out onto its floodplain is the solution, but it’s costly and means we have to get used to more water spending more time on the floodplain. Better there than downstream in people’s living rooms!

Next came Matt Holden, Beaver Officer for Devon Wildlife Trust. Beavers, wonderfully, can help our degraded rivers recover, by building dams and associated wetlands that spread the water, slow it down, help clear sediment and create superb wildlife-rich habitats. The good news is that the beavers of the River Otter are spreading out and have been recorded on the Culm, the Clyst and up the River Exe. These are pioneering individuals and there’s no sign yet that a colony has started but it’s only a matter of time. When that happens, Matt and colleagues at DWT will be on hand to help manage any impacts on landowners and, wherever possible, maximise the benefits these fabulous furry engineers can bring to our rivers.

He was followed by James Maben, talking about the white-clawed crayfish of the Culm and the nearby River Creedy – the two remaining populations of this threatened species in Devon. Their situation is now dire, with poor water quality and the invasive American signal crayfish both threatening the species with extinction in Devon. Thanks to a project led by the Wildwood Trust at Escot, and funded by Natural England, a crayfish hatchery has been set up and adult crayfish from the Culm and Creedy are being rescued from the river and taken there to breed new generations. These will be held in newly-built “ark sites” where we can control water quality and keep those signal crayfish well away. It’s the only hope for the species, until we can get our rivers back in healthy condition.

White-clawed crayfish being checked at Wildwood Devon hatchery

The National Trust, in the form of Tim Dafforn, Countryside Manager, and Simon Bates, Landscape Recovery Officer, then shared their work on the Killerton estate recreating a version of the original wild wetlands of 2000 years ago. Over a huge area of floodplain, the Trust has removed grazing pressure and started building wetland scrapes to store water, and planting thousands of trees. The results after only 2 years are already spectacular and promise to become a hotbed of wildlife activity in the future. This is part of a wider move across the whole Killerton estate, which has a target to plant 1 million trees by 2030 and create hundreds of acres of restored habitat. This is the focus for the 3 Rivers Landscape Recovery Project which Simon is working on.

River Culm floodplain at Killerton

Finally, Richard Horrocks and Tim Burt, both local residents who have been carrying out river surveys (Riverfly and CSI), talked about their findings and how these water quality reports can help build a picture of the river’s health over time, alert us to any unusual trends or events, and create a river that’s better for wildlife. Agriculture, sewage waste and highways runoff are the biggest culprits but more evidence is needed to target where action is needed most urgently.

Discussion and questions followed and we captured the key issues that emerged. We have gathered responses to questions which were submitted by people at the event and shared them in a separate post which you can view here.

The next Forum will be, we hope, in 12 months’ time. In the meantime, please do stay in touch via our newsletter and website, and make the most of the River Culm this spring and summer!