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Montgomery Canal Restoration Review 2015

 

The 2015 restoration season recovered from a very slow start due to continuing problems with the newt licence but burst into life in May. By the end of the year a satisfying amount of work had been achieved.

CRT submitted a revised newt licence application to Natural England at the start of the year; the original June 2014 application having been rejected in October 2014. The application was complex and, after lengthy discussion between the two organisations, the licence was eventually issued in May.

Having done all possible preparation work at Pryces Bridge during 2014 on things like newt fences and site set-up, the Society was faced with the problem of finding useful things for the volunteer group to do during early 2015. Over recent winters the Society has done hedge-laying from December to February. In winter 2014/15 this tradition was extended to include the first ‘restoration’ weekend in March, the venue being at Arddleen. The April work party was at the Weston Arm picnic site which was originally set up by the Society some years ago. The work could more accurately be described as enhancement and involved repair and renovation of the picnic area, towpath, water points, car park and waste disposal area. One notable aspect of the work at Weston Arm was the sight of the large number of boats travelling on the canal, this being something of a novelty for a group whose idea of a canal is a dry channel!

Toward the end of April it became clear that the CRT’s patient negotiations with Natural England were about to bear fruit, paving the way for the issue of the newt licence which, in turn, permitted volunteer access to the first 75  metres of channel at Pryces Bridge. The licence was issued early on the morning of Friday 1st of May, just in time for the work party which started that day. During three days of frantic effort a clay dam was constructed across the channel and the newt fences around the site closed. The newt pond adjacent to Pryces Bridge was also fenced off. The site was then handed back to CRT for the 60 day process of trapping and relocating newts. This meant that it was July before any construction could start at Pryces Bridge. To fill in time the June work party weekend did more enhancement work, this time at Wern Nature Reserve. The main task was repairs to a substantial bridge which spanned the main pond in the Reserve. This involved removal of the old bridge deck and replacement with new boarding, together with repairs to the access paths. The result looked as good as new! The opportunity was also taken to train four volunteers in the use of strimmers in preparation for work in the channel at Pryces. Little did they know what was in store for them!

July 2015 – the month that restoration of the Pryces to Crickheath channel started! The work party came at the end of 60 days of newt trapping and relocation by CRT. Some seventy Great Crested Newts were captured and re-homed, together with a number of smooth newts and numerous frogs, toads and other creatures. The Society is indebted to the three CRT ecologists whose early morning visits to the traps, and help at work parties, ensured a successful conclusion to the newt exclusion process. The initial task was assisting the ecologists in a hand search for newts, and strimming to reduce the height of the vegetation. This process was repeated until there was no vegetation cover and no newts! The channel banks proved to be a relatively easy introduction to the delights of site clearance for both the newly qualified strimmer operators and for the other volunteers who had the thankless task of raking up, and disposing of, the cut vegetation. The clearance/search operations in the overgrown channel were an altogether sterner task, but dogged persistence removed the newts, and cleared bushes, matted waterlogged reeds and other plants. Elsewhere the 8  tonne excavator, on its debut, made short work of trees and stumps around the site, all of which were stockpiled ready for later use in construction of newt hibernation structures. The ground breaking moment (in both senses of the phrase) took place early on a clear Sunday morning when the 8-tonner started the site strip, the material being transferred to a stockpile adjacent to Pryces Bridge by dumper. The three days of work utterly transformed the appearance of the site with the result that it began to resemble a canal again.

The August weekend saw the conclusion of work on stripping the topsoil from the channel area - over 1000 square metres - and transporting the material across two fields and a road to create a new ‘newt friendly’ area. The latter was a section of rip-rap along the offside bank on the Redwith to Pryces Bridge section. This rather convoluted exercise achieved two things – disposing of the site strip material off-site, and creating a connecting corridor for newts between the Redwith newt pond and the Pryces Bridge area. This was undoubtedly the most intensive work party of the year involving, on the first day, the removal of the site strip material stockpiled during the July work party followed, the next day, by material from the rest of the channel. Two excavators and two dumpers worked almost non-stop throughout. To give some idea of the task about 80 dumper runs, each with a travel time of approximately five minutes were necessary, with the road crossing supervised throughout. The task was finished late on Sunday afternoon – just!. In addition during the weekend an extension of the compound was constructed to accommodate the increasing amount of materials and equipment required as the restoration pace quickened.

The acceleration of the work continued during the September work party – an event also notable for the number of volunteers covered in slime, and the demise of the first in-channel newt pond. The very muddy newt pond adjacent to Pryces Bridge was first searched by CRT ecologists and volunteers, and the remaining newts transferred to their new home in the Redwith pond (which had been built by the Society in 2014). The pond was cleared of an accumulation of black slime and filled in with puddle clay. The same material was used to attempt to seal the leaking stop planks and brickwork of the Pryces Bridge wing walls. Society volunteers have been asked to do some dirty and unpleasant jobs over the years and one of the tasks during September must rank near the top of any list of these. As preparation work for replacement of the culvert beneath the channel, a sump had to be installed in the ditch which feeds the culvert to enable over-pumping to take place. In order to do this the ditch first had to be cleared of vegetation, and yet more black sludge! The ten volunteers who uncomplainingly accomplished this task each deserve a medal.

If there was a prize for ‘Work Party of the Year’ the October event would have won it with something to spare. The Society took full advantage of the conditions created by the Indian Summer to make substantial progress on channel shaping, preventing water entering the works, and establishing a means of getting water out of the works. The 8 tonner was let loose levelling the base of the channel and profiling the sloping towpath bank. This gave an immediate visual impression of the shape of the ‘new’ channel.  Another imperative was to get rid of the pile of puddle clay near Pryces Bridge, much of which had been used to construct the dam back in May. The residue had become a favourite haunt of newts and had to be removed before the newt hibernation season. The clay was placed at the back of the Pryces Bridge stop planks, puddled in, and had the effect of stopping all of the leaks. The sight of the volunteers moving the clay by wheelbarrow and turning it to puddle using buckets of water, rammers and boots was one which would have gladdened the hearts of the ‘navigators’ of two centuries ago! The finishing touches to the dam were made by the small excavator which, although not having quite the historical resonance of navvies’ boots, produced a very neat job. The other major task was the construction of a ‘gravel chute’ - a development of the block chute which the Society has used for a number of years - which delivered the pea gravel required for the construction of the french drain. Suffice to say that the gravel chute worked perfectly and by the end of the work party a dozen metres of drain was finished. Phew! – quite an effort over three days.

In contrast to the high jinks of the previous two work parties the November event made painfully slow progress in what were for the most part awful conditions. The mud was such that at the end of Sunday some of the volunteers used the pressure washer on themselves as well as the machines. The main task, involving just about the whole workforce, was a concerted effort to extend the french drain. It would be fair to say that overall progress was slow mainly due to the underground conditions; specifically our old friend from the Redwith/Pryces section the ‘blue clay’ which is actually sand. This material is prone to local collapse and turns to running sand on contact with water. The upshot of this was that the work of excavation, lining and laying the pipes had to be repeated several times in some locations. The gravel gang then had the almost impossible job of shifting several tonnes into the drain whilst the trench was open. Given that this involved moving the gravel by bucket/dumper/gravel chute this was no mean feat. The two days of toil resulted in 35 m of finished drain but lots of lessons learned!

The encouraging news is that the current state of the site is a far cry from that of May. At long last the restoration is beginning to pick up some momentum and, despite the vicissitudes of the year, real progress is now being made. We look forward to 2016 to push forward.

 


David Carter

 

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Finished bund and main newt fence
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Site at start of work in July
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The ground breaking moment
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Site strip in progress
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Puddling the stop-planks at Pryces Bridge
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Work on the French drain and the gravel chute
November 2015
2014 Review
March 2016

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