Friday, 10 January 2020

Winter closure

After a series of discussions regretfully Tophill Low Nature Reserve will remain closed this winter due to the ongoing flood risk.
Whilst the river level has fallen and the rain eased, the section of Environment Agency river bank north of Hempholme Lock has sustained damage and is compromised.  Since the last posting the EA have installed plastic piles to try and reduce water tracking through the top soils which has helped, but this is just a temporary measure.  If there is another prolonged bout of rainfall again combined with high tides it could still be over-washed damaging the defences further.   The unpredictable nature of this means we could be stop-starting access all through winter. 

If the river were to breach, whilst Tophill is slightly higher, the access road would become flooded quite rapidly stranding people within the site.   The Water Works is protected within the flood barricade with pumps on standby ready to maintain its operation and protect the operatives inside.  A multi-agency meeting of the TCG (Tactical Co-ordinating Group) incorporating amongst others the Police and Humberside Fire and Rescue, the Environment Agency and Yorkshire Water considered the priorities in the event of a breach and it has been determined the residential houses will be prioritised.

The issue with the reserve as a third party is that we have variable numbers of staff, volunteers and visitors often in unknown and remote corners of the site.  As such it is very difficult to plan and risk assess for such an incident.  The only way to control and mitigate this risk is to restrict access for non-essential persons.  As Yorkshire Water has very high standards of health and safety this has been the decision taken at a senior level. 

The other factor is that the Environment Agency is imminently starting installation of 550 metres of steel piling to create a permanent repair.  As the bank is unstable and space limited work is being undertaken from the river Hull on a pontoon.  The reserve car park has been commandeered for the contractor compound and pile storage.  With heavy vehicles transporting equipment the site will become subject to the Construction (Design and Management) regulations 2007 and we can’t mix visitors amongst this.  24 hours security will be present on the reserve gates protecting the site. 

For further information on the Environment Agency works they can be contacted on this link.

So when will we re-open?
At present the Environment Agency is still developing the time frame so we aren’t totally sure.  My hope is that the work will go well and the weather will be kind, allowing us time to complete half-finished winter work projects and prep ready for the new membership season.  Realistically I expect no further certainty for six weeks. 

For our members whom have taken out a year’s membership to run until March 31st we’ll be redeeming the lost months of annual membership against the 2020-21 season; to be determined when we know our re-opening date.
What about the wildlife?
Likely having a whale of a time with no human presence!  On our recent visit the kestrel has taken over the Reception hide:
And kingfisher was having a great time fishing the pond outside (and at least the rainfall has filled that up).  
Some big numbers of wildfowl have been present but unfortunately we won’t know this winter.   At least it’ll be very interesting returning and seeing how the wildlife has taken over the reserve again. 

What about the Tophill team?
By permission Amy and I can visit during the EA progress meetings weekly, so it's pleasing to hear there will be 24 hour security on duty in our absence.  Amongst catching up on the admin backlog, Amy will be working on the Yorkshire Water initiative to plant 1 million trees by 2025 across the region to meet the company aspiration to become carbon neutral by 2030.  I'll be working on Yorkshire Water's Local Wildlife Site enhancement initiative taking place over the next five years to conserve conservation interests on Yorkshire Water landholdings across the region.  You may also spot some of the volunteers around too as they visit our contemporary reserves to learn more from reserve staff on their conservation and management work and bring the best bits back to Tophill in spring and ensure we keep the excellent team together.

The future? 
I have no concerns on the long term future of the reserve;  Flooding or not, the site and its wildlife will survive, we've invested a lot of time and funds in creating a great reserve in recent years and although its a shame to interrupt the great feedback we get from visitors near and far, I'm confident when we do return the wildlife as ever will quickly put us back on the map.  Perhaps the bigger picture is that this whole episode will channel many organisations energies into a wider discussion on sustainable floodplain management, drainage and farming in the face of climate change and sea level rise, with all the potential biodiversity opportunities that presents.