The heart of the River Ver
PUBLISHED: 15:09 30 September 2016 | UPDATED: 15:09 30 September 2016
One of the great jewels in our local countryside is Redbournbury, centred on the old watermill and encompassing arable and pastoral farmland, with the River Ver threading its way through the old watercress beds, the whole area is a haven for wildlife. Some of my earliest memories come from sitting with my mother on the footbridge by the ford at Redbournbury Mill and catching the strange bullhead fish, hiding under stones in the shallows, with its oversized toad-like head.
Stepping out of the car at Redbournbury, as I did today, can feel a little bit like stepping back in time. Redbournbury Mill still grinds corn for bread-making using the watermill turned by the mill race, and remnants of the old, once thriving, watercress industry are in evidence along the river’s edge. The whole scene is picturesque, to say the least, and you can’t help feeling that you might have trespassed into a painting by Constable!
My intention, today, was to walk a circular route and enjoy the vibrancy of the June countryside, bursting with life, fragrances and sound. However, I was stopped in my tracks just ten yards from the car by the sheer busy-ness of the birdlife around Redbournbury Mill and the immediate meadows. A blackcap sang heartily from a willow by the ford, while swallows swooped low over the water picking up insects and taking them to their young in the open barns. Goldfinches and linnets picked around noisily in the dirt and a blue tit, no bigger than a pebble, took a bath at the water’s edge.
Raucous starlings, their young freshly fledged, flew back and forth in a constant squabbling for food and security in the flock. The calls of an anxious robin indicated another recently fledged nest while a mother Wren hopped up the mill wall with a beak full of grubs. Everywhere I looked there was some kind of activity amidst the buzzing of insects and the backdrop of chattering house sparrows. Even the skies were busy with House Martins and higher still swifts, their scissor-like wings cutting back and forth against the blue sky. Awaiting the heat of the day, a kite hung low over a nearby woodland while a buzzard flapped lazily by to alight on a dead branch a short way off.
Notebook in hand I realized that I hadn’t walked even ten paces and I already had 23 different species of birds written down! Walking on I encountered a fellow birdwatcher and volunteer with the Ver Valley Society and was reminded how much we have to thank this local society for their efforts over the years to better and preserve the River Ver. Formed in 1976 the society has campaigned constantly and with some success against the over-extraction of water from the River Ver that, at times, has threatened the very existence of the river. This year sees the closure of another pumping station, a cause for relief, but the river is still at risk of running dry, especially should we experience a drought.
Chalk streams are a unique and globally rare habitat. There are just 210 in the world with 160 of these in England. The shallow, clear, chalk-filtered water brings an abundance of life to the immediate area as witnessed along the Redbournbury section of the river. Here the river is at its very best and is free from the constrictions and pollutants encountered further downstream as it enters St Albans. Some of our scarcer species of bird breed here, including yellow wagtails and a few years ago, quite possibly, that rarely seen summer visitor: the secretive Quail. Today two other such birds call out to me: one suggests “A little bit of bread and no cheeeeeese” while the other tells me to “Go back! Go back!” I wonder if we are still familiar with those old colloquialisms for the sound of the Yellowhammer and the Grey Partridge?
Completing my walk back at the car and covering only a small loop of no more than 2.5 miles my list of birds now stands at 51 different species, a testament to the quality of the River Ver habitat at Redbournbury. Nevertheless, the ongoing health of the river is by no means secure and demands that we take its care seriously to ensure its future and the future of the wildlife it supports. So let’s not take our river for granted and this month, why not try one of the Ver walks and experience the river for yourself? For more information on the Ver walks and also on how to support the work of the Ver Valley Society visit www.riverver.co.uk