Life on the River

1st November 2019
BY Mark Sankey, River Keeper

Winchester College is very lucky to be the guardian of some three and a half miles of the River Itchen main channel and carriers, plus over a mile of the Itchen navigation. The water flows through the water meadows, twisting its way down, with dozens of small streams and historic drainage ditches left over from the water meadow system departing and re-joining the waterways throughout their journey.

The River Itchen is one of the most famous chalk streams in the world, renowned for both its trout fishing and its biodiversity. The river is home to a variety of creatures, from the tiniest freshwater shrimps (Gammarus) zipping around in the weed and gravel beds, to the Atlantic salmon that hatch from those same beds and spend their youth feeding on the invertebrates before migrating out to sea. The salmon travel as far north as the Faroe Islands where they gorge on the massive shoals of Capelin, finally returning to the same spawning gravels after two to four years to restart the cycle. There are also rare mammals, such as the water vole and the otter, and a huge variety of bird life, including sedge warblers, kingfishers and herons.

Management of our riparian system involves many different roles, from that of a fishery manager to overseeing the drainage from the city above us. Running the trout fishery, enjoyed by current Wykehamists and the OW fishing club, we produce our own fish on site to stock the river. We spend many hours in the summer up to our waists in water trimming aquatic weeds and cutting back trees.

Managing the water flowing from Winchester can be as simple as adjusting sluice gates according to rainfall, or as critical as opening up river banks to flood fields to take pressure off other areas. We also look after the Navigation, ensuring that the school's rowing club can train here, from First Years who have never rowed before through to the Senior 8`s going off to regattas.

In September the BBC's Countryfile team came to film their Autumn special in Winchester and I was slightly apprehensive when I chosen to explain, on camera, the similarities and differences between the landscape now and during the early 19th century, when the poet Keats would have been walking through. After a week of mild panic, a quick, unplanned haircut and the purchase of a new shirt, I greeted the crew and John Craven. "Keep it simple," he said. "Just say it in the most basic terms, that’s what people want to hear." So I dug up some Alder saplings as John came trudging across the meadows with his trademark rucksac, we talked about managing the river and I demonstrated how the sluices work. It was a fascinating experience. 

The Countryfile Autumn Special aired on BBC One at 17:15, Sunday 3 November 2019. It is now available on iplayer.

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