Caught by the River

Cool Oak Diary #2

2nd March 2022

Warblers and buntings get a new place to call home as Ben Watt continues documenting efforts to conserve his local reservoir.

It’s February at Brent Reservoir (Welsh Harp). The marshes have been overcast most days. The rare jack snipe that mingled with the yearly snipe crowd before Christmas has gone. There were siskins in the alders, and a red kite over the open water this month, but it was the blackcap singing behind the dam last week that sent the first signal spring is nearly here.

And that means the winter contractors need to get a shift on. They have a narrow window after new year before the breeding season starts on March 1. Conservation management services are so busy right now that the Canal and River Trust’s nearest team of available tree specialists have had to come from North Wales. They arrive to excitement in the air. This is the first major winter work to take place on the east marsh in decades. 

Over four days, the six-strong gang in hi-vis and helmets carve a horseshoe swathe through the young willow colonising the ring of reed beds around the east marsh. The reed will grow back in the spaces in the spring, making more habitat for warblers and buntings. Chainsaws buzz amid the plumes of sawdust and wood chips. Logs and branches are stacked as dead hedges. Every now and then one of the men stops, points and shouts ‘Parrot!’ It’s clear ring-necked parakeets haven’t made it to North Wales yet.

Invading trees are felled on the overgrown peninsula and island at the mouth of the River Brent. It looks brutal. Flattened and bare. I can see all the way to the arch of Wembley Stadium at the far end of the reservoir. I worry they’ve done too much, but once the greenery returns, the edges will blur and the marsh will have back another waterside scrape for waders.

This week an amphibious excavator will be brought in by tug to remove more of the submerged and protruding debris and plastic from the shallows and river inlet. Last year — in an emergency operation — it was three boatmen in chest waders hauling out wheelie bins. We’re getting the big kit this year. Things are starting to get serious. 

Talking of serious, the biggest moment of the month was without doubt the visit by Tony Juniper, chair of Natural England. I’d lobbied for six months to get him to visit. Natural England is the government’s adviser for the natural environment in England. It also referees the upkeep and laws protecting Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) of which the Welsh Harp is one of the oldest. As he strode towards me across Cool Oak Bridge in his branded Natural England anorak with his advisors, it felt like a victory already.

I wanted him to see up close not just the upbeat new engagement with the reservoir by owner Canal and River Trust — which we view from the bird hide — but the downbeat stuff too. We walk to the River Brent trash screen, just 100m from the wetlands. The grill is packed with toxic sediment and branches. Plasterboard and plastic bags float in a grim soup of cooking oil, diesel and human sewage. It’s what happens when councils won’t work harder on fly-tipping deterrents, when Thames Water pay lip service to fixing outfall pollution, and when the Environment Agency are too toothless and underfunded to do much about any of it. ‘Welcome to today’s environment,’ says a pained Tony Juniper. 

We finish at the north marsh, where Barnet Council have approved the building of a new 186m footbridge through a neglected SSSI wetlands, misrepresented at planning. There are ecological mitigation obligations attached before work can start, and I’m determined Natural England are fully appraised of the true likely damage, as it will referee the mitigation. 

I produce photos of the wetlands being dug in the 1980s. Cue more amphibious excavators. 35mm images of islands, canals, backwaters. The silted reservoir was pushed back an astonishing 200m to reclaim the area for the breeding birds protected under the SSSI citation. I watch the penny drop in Tony Juniper’s eyes; it suddenly seemed worth all the effort to get him here. We all agree compensation should be high. 

As I walk away, I feel elated. I call Leo, now 76, a professional ornithologist and biodiversity expert who has fought for the Welsh Harp since 1972. He joined our Cool Oak campaign at the start and still carries a flame for the place, even though he now commutes from Norfolk. He tempers my enthusiasm with a little seasoned wisdom, but applauds the new found possibility for change.

“Now, let me tell you about this red-breasted goose we’ve had up here today,” he says, changing the subject to North Norfolk’s latest rare vagrant. 

As I hang up, I wonder if we might just get one at the Welsh Harp one day.


Ben Watt is a musician and writer, best known as one half of Everything But The Girl. His memoir ‘Romany and Tom’, about his parents, was nominated for the Samuel Johnson (Baillie Gifford) Prize. He runs Buzzin’ Fly Records, and in 2021 founded environmental pressure group Cool Oak.

Ben’s website / Twitter / Instagram

Cool Oak’s website / Twitter / Instagram