Caught by the River

Cool Oak Diary #6

1st July 2022

Barnet’s clutch of newly elected Labour councillors spells good news for Brent Reservoir (Welsh Harp), writes Ben Watt, as a climate emergency is declared and a biodiversity officer appointed.

Sleepy June. Birders putting their feet up after the hectic migration months of spring. On the reservoir and in the reeds, mind you, it’s all go. Goslings, ducklings, cootlings, chicks. Families of Canada geese sidle like serene Broadway chorus lines into the open water. And the mute swan revival continues unabated; I counted fifty the other day. There are smatterings of common tern and lapwing on the east marsh, and the black-headed gulls are already returning. The local highlight for me was the aloof great white egret that cruised in low over the rafts, before chilling on the shoreline over by the heronry one afternoon.

On a Saturday morning mid-month I met a clutch of the new Barnet Labour councillors, fresh from their May local elections victory. It’s the first time ever Labour has controlled the administration. For Brent Reservoir (Welsh Harp), it’s good news. A climate emergency has been declared, and a new biodiversity officer is being appointed. There’s even talk of park rangers. It’s important however, to temper expectation. The last time the reservoir saw rangers was thirty years ago, and council budgets are probably thirty percent of what they were then; and everybody across the borough of course wants a piece of the new pie. After feel-good fistbumps, I watched the councillors respectively disperse to weekend constituency surgeries, an invitation to a Hindu temple and a nearby wedding.

Two days later we met with the Canal and River Trust — owners of the water and shoreline — for our long-planned ‘future habitats’ meeting. In spite of the organisation securing funding and action to begin restoration of the east marsh last winter, it was made very clear by their environment manager that we shouldn’t get ahead of ourselves. Since the Toddbrook Reservoir near-miss in 2019, reinstatement of habitat (even legally protected SSSI habitat) will inevitably play second fiddle to the demands of flood resilience in their resource allocation. And, as with every organisation we talk to, money is tight, which means jobs are prioritised. It would be great if there were money for both (really, there should be, from government level downwards), but at the Welsh Harp it means the integrity of the dam will rightly always come first, however frustrating that can sometimes be. 

That said — gathered on a sunny Monday in a portakabin at the canoe club — we went over the wider case. Restoring SSSI habitats is not just about helping waterbirds and rare plants. It’s about creating well-stewarded wetlands in an era of climate change — key green spaces that act as a huge efficient sponge in times of heavy rainfall. It’s about dredging to improve not just feeding grounds, but water capacity. It’s about making a haven of rich biodiversity to maintain pollinators, fertile soil, clean water and waste breakdown, and the mental wellbeing of the local community. And as heatwaves become more frequent, an optimised reservoir acts as a crucial heat sink, stopping nearby neighbourhoods from overheating. Much of this directly impacts on the dam in the end.

In the fine detail, we worked on ideas for new reed alcoves, isolating sensitive areas for breeding birds with channels dug to dissuade dog-walkers, annual plastics recovery from the silt flats, dead hedges and new breeding rafts. The biggest job will be dredging to reshape the wetlands. The silt on the reservoir bed is in poor shape especially near the industrial estate. Decades of inflowing urban pollution has taken its toll. It may not even be possible to move some of it, lest hazardous chemicals are disturbed. No one wants a mass fish kill. It will take careful planning.

And of course there was the day-to-day stuff that gets everyone exercised: the illegal anglers who flick maggots at you if you approach them; the schoolboy on a canoe club outing who couldn’t return to his class because his ear was snagged on a discarded hook in the trees; the relentless fly-tipping; the state of the trash screens; the people who tip bread into the brand new wildflower lawn to feed feral pigeons; and the hostile tearing down of the Canal and River Trust’s big new sign about the restoration project within a few hours of it going up. This place is a challenge to say the least.

Last weekend I walked with Leo, who at 76, has campaigned at the Welsh Harp since the 1970s. We plunged into the bramble and balsam to identify overgrown channels and canals worthy of reinstatement on the north marsh. We stood where a viewing platform once overlooked an expanse of open water. It was just a jungle of colonised vegetation and stagnant pools. I thought how there is often the money for the building of public things, but sometimes very little for their upkeep.

Leo drew ideas in red biro on a crumpled piece of paper. The germ of a cunning new plan.


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