A good year for endangered eels in the Middle Level

Article and photography by Peter Beckenham, Conservation Officer, Middle Level Commissioners

Monitoring of threatened European eels (Anguilla anguilla) has shown that 2020 will likely be the best year for the species reaching the Middle Level since 2014 when monitoring also began.

A specially designed ‘eel pass’ allows eels to be weighed and counted at the Middle Level’s main pumping station near Kings Lynn. The 2020 data is good news overall but it also showed that elvers, the youngest eels, recorded the second lowest annual total over the same time period.

Off to eat and grow in the Fens….

Newly arrived eels being released into the Middle Level System, October 2020

The young eels move into the freshwater rivers of the Middle Level from the tidal Great Ouse in a key part of their epic migration from the Sargasso Sea. Once in the Middle Level system they remain for many years before making the 3000-mile journey back to their natal grounds to spawn. On this downstream journey the pumping station is specially designed for them to pass through unaided. During their time in freshwater the eels mature, changing in size and colour from a muddy ‘yellow’ phase to become attractive ‘silver’ eels. They are an important part of the freshwater ecosystem, providing a protein-rich food source for wading birds and otters.

See you in 15 years time…..

A young eel

Once common in the Cambridgeshire fens, the European eel is now listed as ‘Critically Endangered’ by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). For a migratory species with a complex life cycle many threats have pushed them to this once unimaginable position. The climate crisis, illegal poaching and trafficking and manmade obstacles are some of the key issues they face. Fenland residents can help by reporting illegal fishing and pollution events or volunteering for wildlife surveys.

For more information contact Peter Beckenham, Conservation Officer for the Middle Level Commissioners:


Check your Flood Risk

It is Flood Action Week this week and the Environment Agency is promoting resources to help us determine our own flood risk and know what to do if the worst happens.

Finding out your Flood Risk: is easy. Click here and enter your postcode. Please note, this is for long term flood risk only, if you need information on the immediate threat of flooding click here.

You will get information about your risk from flooding from rivers and seas and surface water (flash) flooding.

You can also read the Environment Agency’s advice on : What To do in a Flood

Also, please remember:

The number one cause of death in a flood is driving through flood water.

Future Fens Flood Risk Management

Photo: Bill Blake, Heritage Documentation

This year the Environment Agency published its National Flood and Coastal Erosion Risk Management Strategy for England.

Page 67 features the only measure within the whole document that is focussed on a specific geographical place:

Measure 1.5.4: By 2025 the Environment Agency will work with farmers, land managers, water companies, internal drainage boards and other partners to develop a long-term plan for managing future flood risk in the Fens.

The Environment Agency and its partners are not taking the future flood risk to the Fens lightly; they have established a project – Future Fens: Flood Risk Management – to consider what the future flood risk management choices for the Great Ouse Fens could look like for the next 50 to 100 years.

The baseline report for this will be published in November this year but here are some facts and statistics which emerged from the recent (Oct 20) Anglian (Great Ouse) Regional Flood and Coastal Committee (RFCC):

There are about 300 EA owned assets delivering flood management the Ouse Fens area and 130,000 households, the benefits of flood defences to these and other assets comes to around £17.1 billion.

To maintain the level of flood defence (i.e. no improvements , not taking into account climate change ) will cost slightly in excess of £1.8 billion to 2100.

32% of the area in the Ouse Fens in under sea level, if the sea levels rise as predicted , 62% will be below sea level by 2100 with no intervention.

Much of the water (59-60%) in the area discharges, by gravity through Denver Sluice out into the washes at Kings Lynn. A rise in sea level as predicted will reduce this to 30% over the next 100 years. This may be even less if the slow movement of water causes even more siltation.

If all the flood defences were “turned off” now, it would take 7 to 12 years for the Fens Basin to fill up with water.

In drawing up this report the consultants and technical group (drawn from project partners) also developed a new methodology for assessing the cost of flooding to agriculture. This is to take into account the often high value of fen crops and other factors unique to the Fens area.

Environment Bill: Water Targets

Today (19th Aug) the Government has revealed its initial thoughts around setting the targets they aim to use to measure the success of the 25 year Environment Plan.

These are the INITIAL THOUGHTS only – the full scope of the target setting involves setting metrics, consultation and drafting the legislation. This should all be in place by 31 October 2022, when Government approval will be sought.

Targets for the Water Environment

There are no mention of Water Framework Directive targets – but then this is European legislation so possibly not surprising. The overarching vision seems to be:

“To achieve clean and plentiful water by improving at least three quarters of our waters to be as close to their natural state as soon as is practicable.”

And this will be achieved by :

Implementing better and more innovative ways to prevent agricultural pollutants damaging water bodies, whilst maintaining a competitive agricultural sector

Proposing a wastewater target which focuses on phosphates and nitrates in order to ensure that rapid progress is made in reducing their environmental impact.

Maintaining the government target for a 50% reduction in leakage by 2050, and endorsed the industry’s commitment to this reduction. Setting a demand target to encourage water companies to go further in reducing the demand for water and to also reduce non-household water use in conjunction with the retail market.

And possibly by:

Reducing the impact of pollution from abandoned metal mines on the water environment

Reducing the impact of physical modification on the water environment

More details about these targets here

Are you Pennywort Alert?

The Environment Agency and RiverCare have a range of resources (posters and postcards) for river based organisations, towns and villages to use to highlight the problem of Floating Pennywort in our waterways. Order your resources here.

You can also help out with an ambitious citizen science project to spot Pennywort on the River Great Ouse – if you spot any click on this link to report it.

Ouse Washes Section 10 news update

The latest news from the Environment Agency about progress on the need to reinforce the Middle Level (Welney village side) Barrier bank.

Works along the Middle Level Barrier Bank

More about the Ouse Washes Section 10 work here

Welney Flood Barrier Consultation – closes 30 September 20

It isn’t too late to reply to the Environment Agency consultation about the installation of a flood barrier across the A1101 at Welney. This is to protect the village in case of over topping of the Old Bedford River. The EA need to know the best time to close the road in order to do this.

Consultation here

Ouse Washes Section 10 works consultation

The Environment Agency are inviting people to a drop-in event to find out more about the Ouse Washes bank raising works and the Welney Wash Road barrier works.

You will have the opportunity to meet the project team, see details of the barrier and discuss this year’s work. The drop-in event will be held:

18 March 2020

William Marshall Centre Hurn Road,

Welney Wisbech,

PE14 9SD

Between 3.30pm and 7.30pm

Please read the attached event poster:

Latest Ouse Washes Middle Level Barrier Bank works newsletter

November 2019

The purpose of this Environment Agency project is to maintain the protection from flood risk for homes and businesses along the Ouse Washes.

What are the Ouse Washes?

The Ouse Washes is defined, under current legislation, as a ‘large raised reservoir’ more commonly known as Ouse Washes Flood Storage Reservoir. It is approximately 33km (22 miles) long and 1.7km (0.5 mile) wide providing about 2,000 hectares (5,000 acres) of land between the banks and it’s in Cambridgeshire. The Dutch Engineer ‘Sir Cornelius Vermuyden’ originally constructed it in 1653 for the purpose of draining the fens. It is designed to store floodwater that would otherwise cause overtopping of riverbanks. 

Over time the Washes has evolved into an important area for a variety of species and subsequently received local, national and international conservation status. It is also important from an agricultural aspect and is heavily grazed during the summer. This grazing serves a dual purpose, it facilitates the management of the Washes by controlling vegetation and maintaining the effective transfer of floodwater; it also acts as an effective technique to manage the grassland habitats of the Washes, providing best conditions for the vast array of bird species visiting the area.

diagram of the Ouse Washes
Aerial view of the Ouse Washes flooded

What work is required to maintain the Ouse Washes?

A qualified civil engineer completed an inspection in 2013 and recommended a number of Measures in the Interests of Safety under Section 10 (6) of the Act. These resulted in a project to raise the Middle Level Barrier Bank to address changes to the bank crest level caused by settlement.

The Middle Level Barrier Bank is lower where the Welney Wash road crosses into the Ouse Washes Flood Storage Reservoir. This low spot reduces the safety and stability of the bank and increases the flood risk to the communities. Historically the Environment Agency have created a temporary flood barrier across the Welney Wash road using large sand bags. Installing large sand bags is costly in terms of labour and waste, as the sand bags cannot be reused. 

The existing bank protects surrounding areas from flood water stored in the reservoir. A recent assessment of the bank height shows that flood water could overtop the bank at isolated locations in the equivalent of a 1% probability event.

Overtopping could lead to erosion and subsequent collapse of the bank. Under the Reservoirs Act 1975 the Middle Level Barrier Bank needs to be safe for a 0.1% probability event. Where communities are immediately adjacent to the bank, the Middle Level Barrier Bank needs to be safe for a 0.01% probability event.

aerial view of the Ouse Washe and Welney Wash road flooded
Aerial view of the Ouse Washes and the Welney Wash road flooded

What work is taking place?

The Environment Agency are raising the Middle Level Barrier Bank between Earith and Welmore Lake Sluice. Other associated works include building barrier works at Welney, a new wall at Welches Dam Pumping Station, extending a retaining wall at Sutton Gault, and decommissioning the Black Sluice culvert (near Earith).

This work is taking place over 4 summers (2017, 2018, 2019 and 2020). Due to the overwintering and breeding bird population found on the Washes, there is a narrow timeframe to do any work on the banks, from mid-July to end of October each year.

You can find out about the latest progress of the project through the link below: