Caught by the River

Cool Oak Diary #13

3rd February 2023

Ben Watt takes to Brent Reservoir (Welsh Harp) full of birding beans — but finds there is still much ecological progress to be made, both locally and nationwide.

Keen birders fall into three camps in January: those who’ve only just burnished their impressive list of the previous year’s sightings and can’t wait to get started all over again, thrilled at the first blue tit of January; those who are resolved that this will be the year they finally take things seriously and are also thrilled by the first blue tit of January; and those who love their birding, but find January a real bloody effort. Reader, I have been all of the above and I am pleased to inform you after a fine birding year in 2022 I am still full of birding beans. So much so, that I am down at Brent Reservoir (Welsh Harp) on the first day of 2023 logging shovelers and dunnocks and — with a big site meeting with reservoir owner Canal and River Trust looming — scoping out the habitat for new improvement opportunities.

Mid-month the small posse from Canal and River Trust assembles by Cool Oak Bridge. Between them they have taken on the workload of departed environment manager, Neil, who was instrumental in helping to wake owners up to the need for change at the reservoir. We walk the east marsh path and gather in the main hide overlooking the dilapidated breeding rafts. When I ask about what we can expect in the way of improvements this year, there are bashful looks. It seems everyone is sitting on their hands until the publication of the owners’ new, much-trumpeted vision document. There is an acknowledgement that for true transformative change, we need transformative money, and these days that means not the government or the council or even CRT themselves, but a big national grant funder. We know we’re talking about the Heritage Lottery Fund. I can’t help wondering why major environmental change can only be largely paid for by the nation’s gambling habit, but on the upside there is considerable optimism that given the time and money that has gone into the drawing up the vision, many are saying it can’t be seen to fail.

In the interim I’m told visible community involvement will play well with any prospective grant funder. A bunch of gobby vocal campaigners — however much we’ve stirred up so far — is not enough. It needs grassroots support. I think of the impressive volunteering days staged by our campaign partners, Friends of the Welsh Harp. We need more of that. Keep it relatable. Green aid as recreation, not a drag.

And I realise we also need to nurture a greater fondness for the reservoir locally. The years of neglect have taken a toll, not just on wildlife, habitat and water quality, but on its purpose for the community. Yes, people are stretched these days, but somehow wetlands and green spaces must be valued too. As somewhere not just to unwind, but as places that also stop homes from flooding, absorb summer heatwaves, capture carbon, add links in the food chain; places that are a friend, not a blank space to fly-tip or take for granted.

I think of all the small jobs that are still worth doing while we wait for a bigger windfall — a new pond, bug hotels, path maintenance, getting local schools to redecorate the public bird hide — but then I feel the political side in me get angrier as I look at the bigger picture: how the incumbent UK government is failing in all 23 of the environmental targets it set itself in 2018; how water quality won’t improve until water company directors face personal liability; how between 1970 and 2013 UK wildlife figures fell by 56% and so little is being done about it; and how Canal and River Trust — the charity tasked with looking after 72 of the UK’s reservoirs and umpteen miles of waterways — is apologising to me for not having enough money to look after them as they’d like, and we’re all going cap in hand to the lottery fund.

I love Brent Reservoir. One of our first SSSIs. A feral, urban wildernesss. I come here to de-stress, to engage with shovelers and dunnock, to marvel at its selfless ecosystem, but I also know that without help, it may all slowly collapse under pressures that are largely of our own making. Yes, roll on, national lottery funding; but also, roll on a government that actually realises what it is in danger of losing and has the teeth to do something about it.


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