My blogs seem to be like London buses – none for a long time and then two come along together. We have just held the first AGM of the Bure Navigation Conservation Trust and the minutes have been posted on this site but to save you searching for them they are also here.
What follows is a personal opinion, much as all these blogs are, and shouldn’t be taken as BNCT policy although where there is wide divergence I do point out the alternative views. The upper Bure is defined as such by the head of navigation at Horstead whereby lower is navigable and upper is no longer open to boat traffic. The lower part of the river is wholly in the cruising area and is managed by the Broads Authority as part of their statutory responsibility; for good or bad this does represent a one-stop shop for all matters pertaining to the Bure in that area. The upper river is divided again by history and location, immediately above the lock at Horstead lies what was the Aylsham Navigation; this is a much altered area designed to facilitate the passage of now long dead boats but is that part of the river that we are interested in from a conservation and historical perspective. Above Aylsham there is the tranquil and winding stream of the Bure which is the least affected by man although even this part of the river is constrained and dammed in places to allow for mills, culverts, drainage and bridges. The river therefore falls in to three distinct phases and our interest is with the middle one. Only the real headwaters are close to natural but man has been harnessing the whole river for power, food and navigation for centuries and probably millennia. Why am I stating the obvious and what does it matter? The answer is simply what happens in the headwaters affects the middle and lower sectors and likewise what happens in the middle sector can have a knock-on effect lower down. To complicate things there are different regulatory authorities, drainage boards and executive agencies all having their own agenda’s and responsibilities. To add to this mix are the landowners with riparian rights on the highest and middle reaches and the competing demands of leisure users in canoes or on foot, fisherman and holidaymakers in their cruisers. Frankly it’s a nightmare and a mess with some of the stakeholders having totally opposing views that are not easily reconciled.
A simple example is the spread and control of invasive non-indigenous species of flora and fauna. The presence of Himalayan Balsam or Giant Hogweed, to name but two, in the highest reaches means that by the very nature of a flowing river they will spread downstream. This affects the old Aylsham Navigation area and also the much higher reaches of the Bure from where it can spread to the wider Broads but if it isn’t dealt with along the river as a whole it will never be eradicated. Invasive fauna on the other hand tends to travel upstream and thankfully mostly affects the Broads area but in time examples of non-indigenous Shrimp and Crayfish (as examples) will get into the upper waters, in fact in small numbers they have already been carried, probably unknowingly, by walkers or canoeists or fisher folk. Each regulatory stakeholder and executive agencies have their own agenda and they compete for resources, access and public support sometimes supporting contradictory schemes. In other cases the actions are finance limited which is becoming a much more common feature of state environmental intervention. Flood control is an example as austerity means that the EA does not dredge the river above Horstead any more and yet this was as seen an effective measure. New plans are being drafted which may change the nature of the river in places particularly between Horstead and Buxton. This is the very stretch that retains the most original part of the navigation which I would argue is a linear historical monument in the landscape and should not be messed with. The plans, over time, will alter the profile of the river whilst may be improving habitat but at a high cost to history and also, possibly, walkers and other leisure users. Also any changes to the upper river will have a knock-on to the lower one. In fairness there is the beginnings of a more holistic approach to identifying and controlling invasive species where agencies are starting to look at the entire catchment at least for species identification and hopefully this will lead to joined up plans for control and eradication.
I have been involved in this conservation movement for just over a year and I came to it from a desire to see the history retained but I have moved on from there and am only just beginning to get to grips with all the complexities thrown up by man around this river (although I believe it to be fairly typical). I have come to the personal view that there needs to be an over-arching body that takes a whole river spring to sea approach coordinating the efforts of all the agencies, landowners and user groups to make sure as far as possible that one does not affect the other. A Bure catchment committee if you like. That really shouldn’t be too difficult should it? This is blue sky personal thinking and I am sometimes accused of being overly optimistic but I do feel that a joined up approach is worth a try. One of the difficulties though would be where competing interests collide with totally opposite views. Such a committee would be a medium to allow for one group to understand the other and also to arrange public consultations. If this route fails to find a solution there probably wouldn’t be one to find.
Finally on our stretch I fear that we should not give up on the history. We are a conservation group and not a restoration one but who is to say that in 100 years, 200 years or even 20 years a need will not arise to use the water again for transportation. It wouldn’t be easy even now but we shouldn’t make it harder for those that follow other than to ensure the health and well being of the existing habitat. I am conservative about the river with a decidedly small “c” – probably the only thing I would accept that title about. That isn’t to say that all change is bad – we have already made a small difference at Oxnead where the trees planted for harvest are now being cut by the landownerand we have made our views heard about restoring the environment to how it was at the time of the Navigation. A comparison of then and now photos of the river is always very revealing. We are also making our voices heard in respect of the appalling condition and route of the footpath but that story is for another day.