Friday 30 December 2016

Managing the Claise River

Just recently Yohann Sionneau, our local river technician got in touch with me. He'd been reading the blog and thought he might be able to clarify some of the details of what his job entails and how he goes about managing the Claise river and its tributaries. Specifically he wanted to talk about how he has to tread a fine and diplomatic line between a number of stakeholders, and every management decision or action is inevitably a compromise which is the best possible he can achieve after negotiating with the elected officials of the Communauté de Communes de la Touraine du Sud  (his employer), landowners along the river (mostly farmers), special interest groups (such as the watermill owners or the anglers associations) and EU regulations (such as the Fresh Water Directive).

Tim suggested the caption for this photo should be 'The sky's the limit!' He and Yohann are talking about how Tim manages his site in the Aigronne valley. Yohann was extremely complimentary, referring to it as the 'lungs' of the valley. More or less the whole valley has been declared a ZNIEFF, but Tim is one of the few landowners taking the conservation of the protected area seriously. Yohann appreciates that greatly.

When he was studying ecology he naively thought that when he graduated his job would be to get out into the field and practice ecology. It's been rather a rude awakening to realise that ecology is about 20% of his job. The rest is administration (office based paperwork) and local politics. He commented that admin and politics were not even touched upon in his university course. He's not the only river technician to make a similar remark to me. These young guys (all the ones I know are male) started in their newly created river technician jobs in 2011 full of idealism and zeal. Very quickly they've discovered that not everyone they needed to influence, advise and work with had an approach or ideas that coincided with theirs. It was a crash course in realpolitik that continues to this day. Luckily the rewards and satisfactions of the job still outweigh the frustrations I think.

This is part of a millstream flowing through friends Tim and Pauline's property. The millstream itself is owned by local farmer Richard. He and Tim have discussed dredging the far side of the stream to improve habitat and flow. Mention of that set Yohann's alarm bells ringing slightly and he requested that if any work is to be done that he be contacted. He thinks it is probable that the millstream is classified as a cours d'eau ('water course') which means that permission must be sought from the authorities (ONEMA - Office National de l’Eau et des Milieux Aquatique National Agency for Water and Aquatic Environments). He can act as an intermediary with this.

Yohann's job is to improve and maintain the health of the rivers in the Claise valley catchment area. He is responsible for 312 km of water courses, including the main tributaries of the Claise, the Muanne, the Aigronne, the Rémillon and the Brignon. His role is a combination of practical field work such as surveying fish populations and providing the labour and equipment for lumberjacking and earthmoving, as well as advisory, where the landowner wishes to undertake the work themselves. He began by compiling a hefty report on the state of the rivers in the system, and as the first five year plan comes to an end, he is documenting progress and outcomes. The next five year plan is in the pipeline and will be at least as thick as the initial one. Its focus will be on pollution, particularly agricultural runoff and silt, as well as maintaining all the gains of the previous five years.

A weir on the Aigronne River. Yohann plans to repair it with a light touch, strategically dropping a few locally sourced rocks in the river to form a series of stepped pools so that trout can continue to move up and down the river.

The first really obvious action Yohann took was to contact landowners with proposals to selectively clear vegetation along the river banks. He hoped this would be a way of building trust between himself as an ecologist with an eye on the big picture health of the river and the mostly conservative private landowners involved in agriculture along the river. As it turned out, sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn't. He is hampered by mostly only being able to provide advice with no powers of compulsion, and by the way the project is funded, where landowners can unwittingly be rewarded for either ignoring or misinterpreting his advice and removing desirable riparian vegetation, both living and dead. There is an unfortunate predisposition on the part of many French landowners to want everything tout propre (all clean and tidy), which is not helpful when it comes to managing and maintaining biodiversity.

A map showing how much the course of the Claise has been canalised and straightened at Chaumussay. The blue indicates the old course of the river, the red the modern straightened course. I have to admit, I can't work out which section of the river this is (I can't find the Moulin de Benais on Géoportail). Yohann remarked that between Chaumussay and Le Grand Pressigny the river is exactly as he would want it to be, but nobody gets to see it because the banks are not accessible.

Part of Yohann's job is to identify trees and vegetation that needs to be removed from the river banks, but also to identify vegetation that is beneficial to the health of the river. The removal of trees should be done on a case by case basis, generally speaking only removing trees that are unstable and constitute a risk. He has poplar plantations in his sights because they are often planted too close to the banks, and with their regimented rows and shallow root systems are very susceptible to wind damage. If uprooted there can be damage to the river banks, leading to them becoming destabilised. They are also often not harvested in a timely manner and get too big and old, leading to even more likelihood that they are unstable.

Tim F and Yohann discuss river management where the Aigronne River has been divided to form a millstream going off to the right and the main course of the river goes off to the left.

Having learnt a lot about communicating with landowners Yohann is now focusing on some other ongoing aspects of the rivers' management. One is the control of the invasive species* such as Water Primrose, and periodically his team physically remove as much as they can from sections of the river. Second, he is monitoring the fish stocks and is hopeful that the Federation of Anglers can be convinced not to release any more captive bred trout into the river. His surveys show that 17 out of 21 trout caught are wild born and he feels that the wild population should be allowed to build up without competition from the annually dumped captive bred fingerlings. Third, he feels that much of the river is too wide, canalised and slow flowing. He wants to makes sure the tributary rivers particularly become sinuous, bubbling and oxygenated. The trout in the Rémillon and the Aigronne will benefit from this. 

A typical example of poor agricultural practice along the Aigronne River. The field in the foreground was until last year a water meadow, with pasture for grazing animals, and a large population of the rare and protected wild flower Snakeshead Fritillary Fritillaria meleagris. Now the grass has been ploughed up, presumably to grow a cereal crop, and all the trees have been felled along the river bank, probably because they shaded the field and would interfere with cultivating a crop. This farmer can expect the banks of the river to start eroding and a build up of silt and pesticides in the river due to runoff from the field. Despite the plant and the land's protected status nothing can be done to stop the farmer engaging in 'normal agricultural practices', a category which is specifically exempt from the protection legislation.

To achieve the last aim he has a cunning plan which he hopes farmers will be only too happy to help with, since he is willing to buy field stones which the farmers would otherwise see as a nuisance and pile up to one side. He wants to dump the field stones, which are identical to the stones already in the rivers, at strategic points in the river to act as banks and bars, forcing the water to twist around them and bubble over them. To a large extent he is set on undoing major canalisation work that was undertaken in the 1960s. Prior to the modifications in the 1960s these rivers flooded to some extent every year or so. Riverside landowners were used to it and expected it, but the works in the 1960s were designed to eliminate these floods. They were very successful at doing so, and landowners became less habituated to maintaining water meadows and suitable trees along the river to mitigate the effects of flood such as erosion of banks and the depositing of silt. Now that the river didn't flood they felt safe to plough up the meadows. Cattle grazing was less financially rewarding that cereal growing. Some of them stayed livestock farmers, but more and more the animals were kept in sheds and fed cereal grown on land that was once down to pasture that the animals would have grazed. Others switched outright into cereal growing as their source of income, and either way the river flats were ploughed up.

Yohann with his mahoosive report on the Claise River.

This year, with the biggest flood since records began in the Claise valley, farmers lost their crops on these riverside parcels. Plus a lot of their soil, fertilizer, fungicides and insectides will have been washed down the river and the banks undermined by the increased flow. If the land had been still just growing native unimproved grasses, the land would have been able to sponge it up, the plant roots would have held the soil in place and filtered out any chemical runoff.

The European Fresh Water Directive was issued in 2000 and the stated aim was that 100% of European rivers should be in good health by 2015. Despite the best efforts of professional ecologists like Yohann this just hasn't happened. The percentage of rivers that have met the targets is currently under 20%. The budget for the Claise and its tributaries over the last 5 years was 1.85 million euros. The budget is divided into three main categories. Heavy works such as the removal of Water Primrose, river bank vegetation, depositing field stones, removal of the old public swimming pool in the river at Le Grand Pressigny and the restoration of the site, fencing and stock watering facilities consumed 1.064 million euros. Another €261 000 was spent on outreach, and finally €95 000 on biodiversity surveys.

The problem is proving complicated not so much on an ecological level, but on a psychological level. The project is necessarily extremely consultative and the stakeholders have a wide variety of backgrounds, concerns and motives. In the long term it will only succeed by continuing to be consultative in this way, but this method of working is slow and can be frustrating for observers and stakeholders alike. Yohann needs to keep a clear head and an even temper. He tells me that certain people who disagree with his approach have insulted him to his face. This is a small community where people tend to know one another and have a personal relationship with their elected councillors. Yohann needs to be aware of local sensitivities and relationships which may have no obvious link to the project but may still influence outcomes.


*The Communauté de Communes is also funding control of introduced aquatic rodents (coypu and muskrats) and Asian Yellow-legged Hornets as part of the rivers project. They have purchased 100 traps and provided training for anyone interested in using them to control coypu. Asian Hornets love to build their nests by water and the CCTS will also refund up to €150 on presentation of an invoice to destroy an Asian Hornets nest.


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Le Pré de la Forge said...

Superb post...
One observation about the ploughing of the watermeadows... the size of the machinery is also having a drastic effect on the land quality... the tractors and what they use,even for mowing hay, have increased in size considerably in the last ten years.
This has resulted in additional soil compaction and created "pond" areas in these fields... even after just a heavy rainfall. Two that are immediately obvious as I drive into le G.P are both the fields just after the nearest poplar plantation to us... he has planted something there this year and you can see where the "ponds" are... the crop just isn't well... the next meadow along... beside the ex-fritillary-filled ditch... only mown for hay... always ponds because of the size of the mowing apparatus and tractor. The twiddler for the hay is a much more suitable size... that bit is easily spotted, too... it is where the heavy Juncus growth is!!

Also, you might consider putting a rule between the end of the post and your asterixed remark about the CCTS... it reads like a continuation at the moment... rather confusing.

chm said...

Wow! Just like Tim said, this is a fabulous post, so interesting and informative. This young man, Yohann, will have to be very diplomatic with some of the reluctant farmers who see only their own profit. On the other hand, farmers don't have an easy life.

Sheila said...

Thanks for another of your very interesting posts. It's ironic that perhaps the most cooperative and caring landowners, Tim and Pauline, with whom Yohann deals are Brits. Here's wishing Yohann much success in 2017,

Le Pré de la Forge said...

Sheila, it is our hobby as much as anything.... if we leave a patch of land that can seed the rest of the local environment is a goal that we set ourselves on buying the house.
The field, at that time, had only five very old neglected pollards, and ancient alder and some riverside trees. Everything else we have planted or managed the natural seeding and recovery... an example is planting a lot more willow in corridors to allow the safe movement of the creatures that live here.
But, yes, it is a bit ironic... especially as we couldn't afford to do the same in the UK!!

Susan said...

The way I see it, what farmers do in the next decade or so will determine the survival of the human race. On the one hand studies show they are amongst the least well informed about ecological issues, and on the other we depend on them to produce food.

Susan said...

I have no doubt the irony is not lost on Yohann. That it is the expats who are willing to put their money where their mouth is in order to fund local heritage projects is not lost on the SAP either.

Le Pré de la Forge said...

Susan, I have found the stretch of river from the Moulin de Benais....
It is just below "le Petit Carroir"....and is marked as ruins....
On the GPS grid it is Easting 335 - 5 :: Northing 5294 - 6
You can see the straightened bit on the 1:25000 map clearly.
It is quite a way below Chaumussay!

Susan said...

OK. Thanks for that.

the fly in the web said...

Yes, a course in diplomacy would have come in helpful, wouldn't it!
The river technician in our area had endless problems as farmers were prominent in local political life and he had trouble getting the necessary backing to carry out works.
Having said that I'm jolly glad we offloaded the house in France as with the proposed 'management' of barrages it looks as if the river and mill stream at the bottom of the garden there will be losing a lot of their charm.

Susan said...

Luckily for Yohann our councillors are a mixture of townies and farmers, but it has still been a struggle and he has to administer certain policies that he is in fact deeply worried by (ie he thinks they are going to backfire bigtime). The mill owners often see him as a threat, but in fact, he takes each case on its own merits (unlike some of the river technicians, who I think yielded to pressure from on high to remove all the mill sluices). T&P were very worried that Yohann planned to remove the weir at the bottom of their place, thus turning their millstream into a stagnant mosquito breeding sludge. He didn't realise they were worried until I told him, so he was able to reassure them with this visit.

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