Everyone loves a river, don’t they? Judging by the turnout and the positive vibrations at the River Festival, held on the banks of the River Ouse in Lewes, Sussex, this holds true. The celebration of all things riversome was staged by Love Our Ouse and the Railway Land Wildlife Trust. But beneath the surface are troubling threats to the well-being of the Ouse. The festival asked questions as to what’s to be done to save and protect it, along with many other rivers in the UK.
Festival Director Natasha Padbury explained the thinking behind the festival:
“Sadly the Ouse faces a multitude of threats and challenges, and Love Our Ouse was created out of that need to try to improve and make a stand for the river on our doorstep. We really wanted the festival programme to offer an accessible and informative means to learn about the issues the river and its tributaries face while giving local people options to get involved in actions to safeguard and build resilience.”
September’s all-day festival was a gentle affair, with giant paper fish, stalls and activities for all ages – anything from creating a shoal of fish pictures to storytelling and local history. David Sykes, of Lewes Rowing Club, explained how to navigate the river, and the Tide Mills Community Choir of sea swimmers led the river revellers in a communal singalong.
Uniting with a common cause
The stalls at the festival told their own story as to how multifaceted all rivers are, something exemplified by the diverse and disparate groups that care about the Ouse: the Marine Conservation Society, the Aquifer Partnership, Sussex Wildlife Trust, Lewes Climate Hub, Human Nature and the Ouse Angling Preservation Society, to name a few. In the evening, it was time for some river revelry, with a curated array of local musicians and home-grown poets, and even a flourish of local flamenco.
Underpinning the whole day was an awareness of the real threats facing the river and a sense of purpose and resolve to do something about it. “We have always been aware that the Ouse is loved by many and that there are many groups that are trying to protect and enjoy the river”, says Padbury. “However, we have always felt that [the support] is fractured and there was a need for a more unified approach. Doing more to give the river pride of place and linking it all together could enable up-scaled action that might turn the tide on its health.”
Charting a way forward
At the festival’s River Summit, speakers set out some of the questions and possible answers, with experts from the Ouse and Adur Rivers Trust, Lewes District Council and the South Downs National Park Authority. Paul Powesland, the founder of Lawyers for Nature, floated the idea of the river becoming a legal entity, with guardians to protect its rights. This was followed by a workshop where everyone got together to come up with a list of what rights the Ouse should have. Top choices were: the right to be unpolluted, the rights of all the living things in the river, its ecology and the right to flow freely.
Causes for concern
Many of the priorities identified in the workshop mirrored the problems highlighted by Peter King, Director of the Ouse and Adur Rivers Trust (OART), in his introduction to the festival. In the UK, 85% of all rivers fail to meet good ecological status. On the Ouse, only 19% of the water bodies on the river are rated good for fish. There are 237 barriers on the river, mostly weirs and structures from when the river had watermills and industrial workings. They effectively stop the fish in the river moving around. So OART are modifying or removing them where possible.
Rallying round the river
The good news is, as the Love Our Ouse festival demonstrates, there’s an increased sense of what’s unacceptable. Rivers are becoming rallying points for action, as volunteers and pressure groups lobby politicians and the water companies while, at the same time, undertaking voluntary work to clean up rivers and restore them to health.
Padbury sees the festival as a beginning, “a testing ground for many of the potential projects we have been scoping in the past year. Our community mapping exhibition gathered a lot of information from local residents and our Rights of the River programme was great at getting a sense of enthusiasm and potential shape for creating a charter for the Ouse. The opportunity it gave for all these groups to talk with each other, to share knowledge and passion about the river, was invaluable in raising the profile of the river, and hopefully it will create future collaborations.”
After all, as David Brower, founder of Friends of the Earth, once put it, “We must begin thinking like a river if we are to leave a legacy of beauty and life for future generations.”