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Frosty's Ramblings Good news for Father Thames

PETER FROST takes a stroll alongside the Thames to see what manner of beasts are sharing the river with us

SHARKS, seahorses, eels and seals are all keeping well and living in the River Thames, a recent study has found.

It’s a huge and gratifying change from back in 1957 when much to everyone’s embarrassment England’s most famous river was officially declared “biologically dead.”

Now the Zoological Society of London (ZSL), along with many other groups, has produced The State of the Thames Report. This timely and comprehensive report highlights huge changes in the river since 1957.

The Thames has seen an increase in its range of birds, marine mammals and natural habitats since the major survey of 1990s. Sharks have made the headlines since the report discovered various shark species including tope, starry smooth hound and spurdog sharks living in the Thames.
Strangely the number of fish species found in the tidal areas of the Thames has actually showed a slight decline although the expert authors of the report were unable to establish why.

Further research is needed to determine the cause of this small reduction. There are still more than 100 fish species in the river, including sea horses along with 92 species of birds.

Many of the river’s bird species are long legged waders including avocets and various egrets. There are swans and ducks of course and rarer visitors have included white tailed sea eagles, at least one vulture, storks and even an escaped pair of bright pink flamingos.

Electric blue flashes from kingfishers are still one of my own most exciting sights from the riverbank. Another is to see a long legged wader, a heron perhaps, fighting with a wriggling yard (or should that be a metre) of the increasingly rare European eel.

There have been many key reasons why the Thames and its fauna and flora have changed so much. One very important one, you will not be surprised to learn, is climate change which has increased the temperature of London’s waterway by 0.2°C a year.

That rise in temperatures has meant water levels in the tidal Thames have increased since 1911. Add to this sea levels measured at Silvertown have also been rising 4.26mm a year since 1990.

Silvertown is a district in the London Borough of Newham, in east London, England. It lies on the north bank of the Thames and was an important part of London Docks as well as historically being part of the parish and borough of West Ham, as well as the ancient hundred of Becontree and the historic county of Essex.

The report also highlights the need for the proposed London super sewer known as the Thames Tideway Tunnel. This £4.2bn, 15-mile long, 200ft deep sewer will capture 39 million tonnes of untreated sewage that is currently flushed into the Thames every year.

London’s sewage system was largely built in the 1800s when London’s population was less than a quarter of what it is today. Storm events cause excess sewage to overflow into the Tidal Thames, posing a major threat to water quality.

We just have to hope that this new super sewer doesn’t go the way of so many of Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his Tory government’s money-saving cutbacks. It won’t be the first or last time, Johnson’s money-saving policies will leave us literally in the shit.

ZSL says it is working closely with partners to create new estuarine habitats, including seagrass and saltmarsh to restore wildlife in the river. These also act as natural flood defences, and help to mitigate against extreme weather such as storms and floods.

The 215-mile-long River Thames cuts through southern England, flows through London and opens at the English Channel. As London’s population grew over the course of centuries, so did its impact on the river. By 1957, scientists at the Natural History Museum of London declared large lengths of the Thames to be so polluted that they were, as mentioned before, “biologically dead.”

The new report has enabled us to really look at how far the Thames has come on its journey to recovery and in some cases, set baselines to build from in the future.

Around 20 years ago, little was known about seals living in the river, but the new report highlights the abundance and location of two species: there are about 900 harbour seals (Phoca vitulina) and 3,200 grey seals (Halichoerus grypus) living in the Thames.

Regular readers will know how much I love spotting sea mammals both in and out of London’s river. That elusive walrus never really reached the Thames but it must have swum pretty close to the estuary a few times. It’s still loose and was last reported somewhere in the north-east of England.

Dolphins, porpoises and whales are often seen in the Thames right up to the capital’s centre and although the river estuary is a bit shallow for bigger whales we have regular minke and humpback whale sightings as well as other rarer whale species including the amazing pure white beluga.

Just to confuse we whale watchers there is now a full size, very realistic plastic orca or killer whale offering pleasure trips in the capital. Don’t be fooled.

Bigger whales like the mother and baby sperm whale who arrived in January 2020 tend to find the Thames an unsuitable environment and sadly this mum and baby soon died in the river.

River-based mammals are doing quite well including increasing populations of both native otter and imported mink all along the river.

Water voles, one of Britain’s most threatened mammals, are being given a boost as a community group works to reintroduce them to a River Thames tributary in Kingston. Water voles were once abundant in British rivers, but populations have declined by 97 per cent since the 1970s.

As long ago as 2008, 400 years after the last wild native beavers in England were hunted to extinction, beavers were again spotted in the Thames near Oxford.

We don’t know whether they were escapees or deliberately released. In the intervening dozen years other beaver families have turned up again without any real knowledge of how they got there.

Though sewage treatment and the flow of waste into the river has dramatically improved in recent decades, the problem isn’t solved yet. Increased nitrates come from industrial waste and sewage flowing into the water around London.

The new report comes at a critical time and highlights the urgent need for the Thames Tideway Tunnel.

The new “super” sewer, which is due to be completed in 2025, is designed to capture more than 95 per cent of the sewage spills that enter the river from London’s Victorian sewer system. It will have a significant impact on the water quality, making it a much healthier environment for wildlife to survive and flourish.

The River Thames is an important and vital part of the history of both our capital city and the entire countryside of southern England and our more southerly midlands.

From the marshy estuaries of Kent and Essex to the riverside wildflower meadows of Gloucestershire this noble river is a key indicator to the health of our countryside and wildlife. It carves its serpentine way through some of the loveliest parts of our green and pleasant land.

 As “Old Father Thames goes rolling along down to the mighty sea” it is up to all of us to do what we can to look after this great artery that nourishes the heartbeat of our nation.





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