Birds and flooding in the Severn Hams

In winter, the Severn floodplain, especially the area between Gloucester and Tewkesbury, regularly welcomes many thousands of wintering waterbirds.  After the dry summer, there was a light local flood in late October and early November, then a much deeper one beginning just before Christmas.  The November flood attracted large numbers of Wigeon and Teal (much higher numbers of Wigeon than were present on the estuary in the Frampton/Slimbridge area at the time); when the flooding receded in late November, many of these birds moved to the estuary.  They came back to Coombe Hill as waters began to rise again in mid-December.  So the link between the estuary and floodplain sites inland was clearly demonstrated.  (For a full account of birds in the area between October and December, see “Birds in the Severn and Avon Vales October to December 2013” under Published reports on this website).

However, as has been widely reflected in the media, the flooding has got much more serious since Christmas, and there were Severe Flood Warnings (the highest category, indicating danger to human life and property) on either side of New Year.  The top of a spring tide cycle in early January pushed water up the estuary and into the flood plain, coinciding with a flush of water coming down the Severn, following heavy rain at the top of the Severn catchment in north Wales and in the northwest Midlands; this flush was exacerbated by inflow from the Avon, not to mention other local streams like the Leadon, Chelt and Swilgate, which could not flow out into the Severn and so back-flooded riverside meadows.   As a result, there is very deep flooding between Gloucester and Tewkesbury, with main roads closed by flooding – the A417 from Gloucester to Ledbury round Maisemore, the B4213 at Haw Bridge.  The Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust had only just inaugurated its new hide and boardwalk at the Coombe Hill Meadows reserve, replacing the one washed away by the previous winter’s floods; the hide is now totally inaccessible and will remain so for many weeks – it is to be hoped that it will survive intact!

The effect on waterbirds has been striking: wild birds don’t like deep flooding any more than humans do.  So the thousands of surface-feeding ducks which were in the Coombe Hill and Ashleworth area only ten days ago, grazing and feeding round the edges, have disappeared (as far as one can tell in the flooded conditions!).  Some of them may well have moved downriver to the estuary, but a fair proportion have sought out shallow flooded areas upriver, just into south Worcestershire.  On 4 January there were about 3,000 surface feeding ducks on Longdon Marsh, including about 1,400 each of Wigeon and Teal, with nearly 150 Pintail and about 35 Shoveler.  But where have the thousand odd Greylag and Canada Geese gone, the ones that were previously shared between the Coombe and Ashleworth Ham reserves?  Perhaps to Ripple Lake, the former gravel extraction area along the Severn opposite the outflow to the Severn from Longdon Marsh – there are many hundred geese there.

Plenty to look out for in the New Year then!

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