St Nicks is part of the Dales to Vales Rivers Network led by Yorkshire Dales Rivers Trust, which covers the Swale, Ure, Nidd and Ouse catchment. The network is made of local communities, authorities, government agencies, land owners, water companies and environmental charities like us, using a Catchment Based Approach to natural flood management and working jointly to improve water courses. St Nicks is the project lead for the York Becks catchment which includes Tang Hall and Osbaldwick Beck. Although the becks are downstream in the wider catchment, they are upstream from the city centre rivers. The becks actually have more effect on the Foss than was previously thought and, according to the Environment Agency, 9% of the total flow in the Foss at the time of the Boxing Day 2015 floods was from Tang Hall Beck.
Our water vole project in 2015 improving habitats along the becks on St Nicks, creating a wetland meadow and running several Beck Cleanups, inspired us to do more. York Becks Project now has several strands with the overall aim of helping to reduce flooding and improve the wildlife value of attached green spaces including our nature reserve.
Water vole surveys
Thanks to our surveys and Wildwatch observations we know that, unfortunately, St Nicks water vole population has suffered significantly in 2016, most likely due to the extreme winter flooding. Water voles are decent swimmers and purposely make a range of burrow entrances at different heights on river banks to cope with fluctuating water levels. However, last winter both our becks were overflowing for weeks on end. Due to rapid flooding, they had little time to escape. Some of them were possibly flushed out of the burrows or perhaps left exposed on dry land vulnerable to predators.
It appears that both the numbers of colonies, five identified in 2015, and water voles within them have decreased. Last year many survey rafts were covered in droppings—water voles have a very quick metabolism which turns food left out on rafts into clear evidence of water vole activity. We also had regular reported sightings while in 2016 there have only been three confirmed sightings so far and few droppings left. We are keeping fingers crossed for 2017 as with a kinder winter and good breeding season water vole numbers can quickly recover.
In good news, we have had a welcome new visitor—an otter! It is unlikely to settle here as the becks lack mature trees along the water’s edge with large root cavities ideal for lay up areas (holts) and probably lack a plentiful food supply too. Otter’s presence though, confirmed by the finding of spraint (droppings) and footprints, is a good indicator of clean and healthy rivers. It shows that our efforts to improve the Becks are well worth it and thanks to the York Flood Appeal Fund managed by Two Ridings Community Foundation we will be carrying out further wildlife monitoring in 2017.
Becks Cleanup Days
The aim is to improve the adjacent habitats for wildlife by removing items potentially dangerous to animals such as plastic bags or drinks cans, which can also lead to higher flooding risks by blocking up drains and grates. In 2016 we received a grant of £2,000 from TCV and People’s Health Trust through their Local People project. This funded monthly Beck Cleanup Days on the urban areas of Tang Hall and Osbaldwick Becks.
Heworth Holme is a neglected wetland meadow, which is a remnant of old countryside in the town, protected from development by its regular winter flooding. It is part of a wildlife corridor between St Nicks Nature Reserve and other green spaces along the Tang Hall Beck. Our project aims to make this valuable green space more colourful, accessible and attractive for both the local community and wildlife. In 2016 we’ve run a series of volunteer events on site which sowed wildflowers to attract pollinators and hopefully help nearby water vole populations to extend their range. We have also created wildlife ‘scrapes’ – seasonal wetland areas to benefit wildlife and help with flood management. The events are supported by the Postcode Local Trust – a grant-giving charity funded entirely by players of People’s Postcode Lottery. If you’d like to get involved, look out for more dates in 2017 on our Events page.
In 2017 we will focus on removing Himalayan Balsam along the becks, thanks to this year’s Lord Mayor’s fundraising efforts. Himalayan Balsam is a non-native invasive wetland plant which grows in tall, dense patches and has become a real scourge of river banks. While its pink flowers are popular with pollinators, the plant can easily crowd out native plants important for water voles and other wildlife. Himalayan Balsam monocultures can also lead to erosion of river banks. When it dies back in winter the soil of the bare banks can wash huge amounts of sediment, along with the dead plant material, into rivers blocking culverts and drains. They also increase rainwater run off as there is no vegetation to absorb it and slowly release it later, which all contributes to flooding.
The project, starting in spring 2017, will seek helpers to work with us on their local patches to clear Himalayan Balsam, followed by sowing and planting of native species. By involving local people we hope to increase the area on which we can improve the management both for flood prevention and wildlife value. The project is based on a model we have adopted in the last three years which has led to almost eradicating Himalayan Balsam and establishing more native species in some places on the reserve. Please get in touch if you would like to be involved and see this page for events raising funds for the project.