Himalayan Balsam Update 2015

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October 18, 2015

June 24th was our first outing this year. With 6 willing volunteers we left out the Payhembury brook this time, but otherwise completed the usual Danes Mill to Cadhay Bridge at Ottery – some 6 miles or so, between 8.30am & 4pm. My (Mish - TVT Founder) own efforts were only a couple of hours because this was the day that Yog (West Country Rivers Trust) and I met 2 judges from the Living Waterways Awards. We spent 2 hours showing them all aspects of the Tale Valley Trust’s work, from education and events to river restoration and permissive access. We timed it so that we met up with the balsam team as they came downstream through Escot Park and were having their picnic lunch bankside.

The river was healthy but low, as June had been dry. Fish numbers seemed not so abundant as they had been the previous year but dippers had been nesting under bridges and a kingfishers’ nest burrow was found on the Colesworthy stretch.

Balsam was in very low numbers with small pockets of plants here & there, other than at Cadhay to the east of the river - one inaccessible ditch between neighbours. We tackled this collectively for the first time, clearing access to the ditch which was the main problem. Back at Fairmile this was the second year for spraying and mechanically mowing the acres of neglected paddock, which has transformed the area and delighted the neighbours.

The next day 3 of us concentrated on clearing willow overgrowth on the river for several hundred meters of Rowden End wood adjacent to Colesworthy Farm, south of the Waterloo line viaduct.


July 23rd was the second day. This time the balsam was in flower but we had enough help to be able to complete the main river, Payhembury ditch, Fairmile & Cadhay ditch. A newly noticed ‘bad patch’ was on the north (upstream) face of the railway embankment which presumably became seeded during a flooding. We removed it as best we could as it was growing amongst coppiced scrub brash which was difficult to access. It was nice to be joined by one of the charity’s Trustees Sarah Hogg for part of the morning. The task depends on willing volunteers! Probably only a few hundred plants were encountered on the entire 6 mile
stretch, which is encouraging. The journey took seven and a half hours. Approximately 46 working hours.


August 2nd – Caught an adult male mink in a trap on the Lash brook where the stream runs through 500m of woodland into the Tale.

August 13th – only a 3 week gap since the last sortie but very necessary as it transpired. With only 3 volunteers this time we decided to leave out the Danes Mill to Tuck Mill stretch, concentrating on the Payhembury brook instead. Here we removed some 80 or so plants. From Tuck Mill down through Yellingham and Rydon farms, not too bad – but Talewater
Farm was another story. This is an area of wetland, managed and well fenced for low numbers of hardy heifers. However between the fence and the river, and in a fenced off side ditch there were 100 plants or more. Downstream the northern face of the railway
embankment needed further attention and from there down to the A30 dual carriageway there were individual plants on average every 80-100 metres. Fairmile’s ‘no-mans-land was mowed by Reg for the TVT in advance of our arrival which enabled the 3 of us to mop up the fringes with ease. However between there and the new A30 – i.e. upstream, held our attention for nearly an hour in areas of neglect. Probably in excess of 200 plants were
gathered here. Regrettably we were unable to complete the remainder of the catchment,
from Fairmile to Cadhay bridge.

Fish life was abundant throughout. We saw at least 3 kingfishers, herons, a cormorant in the river on the upper Escot stretch, & frequent evidence of otters – slides, tracks and scent. I passed a 45cm eel resting mid-stream, waiting for passing food. A huge hawk moth caterpillar clung to a piece of balsam, before being cajoled onto native flora!

September 10th - The river looked fantastic. The gravel was clean throughout, with only a hint of algae on the lower stretches around Combelake and Cadhay. Brown trout were abundant throughout and pond skaters were on the water in their thousands. Dippers and kingfishers were seen regularly. (2 days previously a resident had seen 4 kingfishers - a clique, concentration, crown, rattle or realm! all at once on the Escot stretch – 2 blue, 2 brown – adults and young). Evidence of otters and water voles was healthy. We disturbed a fox from the Payhembury brook, and there were possibly a pair of goshawks seen between Escot and Colesworthy, one of which came in to land in a tree above the river before realising there was an intrepid balsam remover directly below. Buzzards were also abundant all day.

Again we were only 3 this time so 2 of us started in Payhembury village and worked down the brook to join the Tale below Tuck Mill. This stretch is still a significant seed bank, although considerably improved from the first time we tackled it a few years ago. The next patch that needed focused attention again was Talewater Farm which seemed to have got slightly worse! Conversely, upstream at Rydon Farm the river looked the best I’ve seen it for some time. The silt bars which had accumulated over the last few years have been completely scoured out, leaving not only pristine gravel beds but also good stands of submerged oxygenating weed – at least three different varieties. Dragon and damsel flies were present, as were fresh water vole latrines. Only 2 balsam plants on this farm. We met up with our lone ranger at the northern end of Colesworthy Farm and after a brief lunch headed downstream from Escot Park.

Fairmile was bad again in the residential gardens but the three of us cleared it within half an hour and continued downstream. The real disappointment of the day was the last side ditch on the Cadhay boundary. We had cleared this area in June and July but not managed to reach it in August. Apart from the ditch itself there is an area of some 75 sq.m fenced off which we had previously pulled. The whole area was pink – to the extent that we decided just to use slashers to fell the plants – many unfortunately already in seed. This could partly be due to plants we had previously uprooted and thrown onto the bank continuing to grow in the favourable conditions of a damp August. We need to redouble our efforts to sever the root from any plant pulled in 2016.

tags: Volunteers,wildlife,river,balsam

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