As the top of the food chain, the presence or absence of fish in our rivers is often the first thing people notice about the health of a river. In the Devil’s Brook and Cheselbourne Stream the village residents have long asked themselves the question of the absence of previously abundant wild Brown Trout. They have also asked Wessex Water and the Environment Agency where the brooks and streams water had gone.

To try to help answer these questions, FWAG SW applied for funding from Wessex Waters small grants scheme in October 2018. We secured the grant, allowing us to embark on a partnership project that would go some way to providing an answer. Thus far, the answer seems complicated!

Low flows were recognised in Dorset’s chalk streams some years ago, both the Environment Agency and Wessex Water have investigated the impact of abstraction on flows in rivers, including the Devil’s Brook and the Cheselbourne stream. The character of the underlying fractured geology causes reaches of both the Devil’s Brook and the Cheselbourne Stream to become ‘Winterbourne’. Winterbournes are common in the chalk geology of Dorset, and the term describes a river that dries up in the summer months. This type of river is rare and can support a unique group of plants and animals that are adapted to living their life in drying rivers. So, geology, and to some extent abstraction, is likely to impact on flows in both brook and stream.

We asked the Wild Trout Trust (WTT) to help us answer the questions about fish populations. We wanted ideas for a range of projects that could help the trout return. The farmers, landowners and residents with riparian habitat in the catchment welcomed advisers from the WTT onto their land, keen to find out possible solutions. The trust produced four reports; three for farmers and one for residents adjacent to the Cheselbourne Stream. Some of their suggestions were simple; fencing and daylight shaded reaches of the rivers are already carried out by farmers in the catchment. Relocating the river is a different level of intervention, and understandably provoked more animated discussion at the farmer meeting in February 2020.

A member of the group has links to the local primary school. FWAG SW Dorset team was asked to develop a ‘Rivers Day’ for Cheselbourne School to encourage the children to appreciate their unique river reach. With expert help from the Riverfly Partnership and the Poole Harbour Catchment Partnership the children found out about the Cheselbourne Stream and the catchment that feeds it.

As part of their Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) week of activities, the pictures (below) show a rare March day in 2020 without rain. The children were fantastically enthusiastic about the activities we put together for them.

Teachers said: “Thank you all for an amazing day! FWAG were able to provide clear directions and  brilliant subject knowledge to challenge and excite pupils. The range of activities on offer has all pupils buzzing about when we can get in the stream next to see what we can find!”

“A massive thank you to FWAG, Wessex water and the Riverfly partnership. All of our pupils had a fantastic day learning so much about our stream. Everyone was so knowledgeable and engaging with pupils - they have all learnt so much!”

Parents said: “I am amazed at how excited my child is after their river work today. They have been able to tell me so much about their learning and the animals they found.”

“Thank you so much for organising so a fantastic learning experience for my child. They are so excited to take me out to show me all the things they have learnt.”

Pupils said: “it was the best day in school ever! I loved getting in the stream and finding out what animals lived in it.”

“The teachers were so clever and helped me lots to find out the names of the creatures.”

“I loved the orange experiment! I never knew how much we can do with our stream!”