Tales from the Riverbank: Sue and Tony

Tales from the Riverbank: Sue and Tony

Sometimes a change of scenery can make a world of difference. Guest bloggers Sue and Tony share their amazing journey towards a wilder life along a local chalk stream.

Way back in 2005, we were living the city life together in London. Inspired by Tony’s academic background in horticulture, and an avid interest in Hugh Fernley-Whittingstall, we decided we needed to move back to the countryside. Looking in Hampshire for family reasons, we were delighted to find our own ‘river cottage’ in a village on the Upper Test.

In addition to the cottage itself, our new home had 3.5 acres of land close to the stream which had been used to house ponies. We decided to get animals of our own, starting out with a calf, two cows, and a handful of sheep. Over time this increased until we were grazing other people’s fields, and in 2013 we bought another eight acres that included a section of riverbank, though sadly not the fishing rights!

Throughout this time our love of the land, the chalk stream, and the wildlife surrounding us continued to grow, but this appreciation was coupled with increasing concern for their wellbeing. A solar installation felt like a good way to earn an income for retirement while also doing something positive for the environment, so in 2015 we re-mortgaged and put in a planning application for two acres of panels.

Our local village gave us fantastic support, and after lots of hurdles we eventually connected to the grid in 2016. The panels generate enough energy to serve approximately 80 houses while still allowing for grazing, although around this time we stopped livestock farming as Tony’s parents were unwell. We downsized to just six pet sheep, which we call ‘the freeloaders’!

Once the solar panels were installed, we were excited to find that they were an ideal habitat for lizards and grass snakes. We had seen house martins and swallows around too, but realised that our land had little in the way of encouragement for wildlife. During his career Tony had been involved in the creation of the Itchen Valley Country Park, and this gave us inspiration for what might be possible on our own little patch.

The area next to the stream became the focal point for our changes. Digging out a dry ditch allowed it to fill with water, drawing damselflies, dragonflies, and amphibians. The permission to install our solar panels required us to add screening for our neighbours, but we went further by planting trees and extending the hedging. In the winter we feed seed along these hedges, to help keep our birds and voles going in the cold.

Our wooded area had been heavily mown by the previous owners, but aside from cutting a few paths we left the grassy sections alone. The result has been beautiful orchids and an amazing abundance of insect life. Small mammals can hide in the undergrowth, while owls hunt along the paths. When managing the trees, we leave logs, stumps, and piles of chippings as habitat for moths, reptiles, hedgehogs, and fungi.

We also planted trees and mixed hedging in our main field, which we sub-divided in order to add a wildflower meadow. Nature has done her bit, with many new plants spreading on their own; the teasels are a delight and orchids have emerged along the riverbank. One of our simplest and most rewarding additions has been a muddy puddle – every morning in the summer we top it up, and the birds come down to collect their nesting material. It’s an absolute joy to watch and costs nothing but a bit of time.

We want to do all we can to help wildlife, but have found that this is not a one-way street: owning the land is a privilege that gives so much back to us. Every little thing we’ve done has given us moments of real joy - a lizard basking on a bench and the grass alive with froglets, the flash of a kingfisher and the rustle of reeds as a water vole crosses the stream. The constant hum of insects alongside the flutter of tiny wrens, huge red kites, and our seasonal friends the swallows, swifts, and house martins.

One of the biggest lessons we’ve learned is that land managed for nature won’t always look tidy - nettles and thistles aren’t the most beautiful plants, but they provide fantastic food and cover for wildlife. It will also be a little unpredictable: our first season of wildflowers gave us the most amazing show, but last year’s was dominated by just a few species. It’s all a balance, and the reward for embracing this is small surprises; this year’s has been cowslips.

Even looking back at all our progress, we know there is still much more that we can do. This winter we sowed yellow rattle in the woodland to suppress some of the more dominant grasses and help diversify our plant species. We plan to increase our current number of bird and bat boxes too. Our next big project is to try to create a large pond on an area currently used for grazing, then complement this with marginal planting, trees and hedges. Once it’s in place, we’ll wait to see who arrives!

We know that not everyone has the opportunity or land availability to do what we’ve done, but in our experience the little things really do make a big difference. Research and advice can be invaluable aids; we had a visit with Maggie Shelton from the Wildlife Trust, which helped shape the plans for our pond. Whatever your circumstances, do what you can – you absolutely will not regret it.

Cherishing our chalk streams

Huge thanks to Sue and Tony for sharing their amazing story with us! We all have the potential to impact our beautiful chalk streams, even when inside our homes, so we all have the chance to make a real difference. Why not share your own chalk stream story, or check out Watercress and Winterbournes for inspiration?