Improving wildlife habitats on the Royal chalk River Babingley

Babingley River reshaping

With the help of Salix, the Norfolk Rivers Trust is improving fish and other river wildlife habitats on the River Babingley near Flitcham, one of only two hundred chalk rivers left in the world.

The River Babingley rises from chalk springs above the villages of Flitcham and Hillington in North West Norfolk, meanders through the Royal Sandringham Estate and joins the sea through Wootton Marsh into the Great River Ouse.

The river provides habitat for eels and migratory freshwater fish, including bullhead and brook lamprey, as well as waterway mammals like water voles and otters. It’s also important for birds like buzzards, barn owls and kingfishers, and invertebrates like damselflies and dragonflies.

Jonah Tosney, Norfolk Rivers Trust’s Nine Chalk Rivers Project Manager, says:

“Despite centuries of modification, the upper Babingley remains one of the finest, clearest and cleanest stretches of chalk river in Norfolk.

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River Babingley May 2016 restoration settling in well

“It is particularly special as there are now only around 200 true chalk streams left in the world, of which 15 per cent are here in Norfolk. Rainwater soaks through chalk ground and, cooled and filtered by its journey through the chalk, emerges at a constant temperature and with a clear and alkaline quality. This means chalk rivers act as “England’s rainforests”, providing a perfect, gentle habitat in which everything grows abundantly – insects, water plants, fish, crayfish, birds and mammals, including the critically endangered water vole.

“Sadly the World Wildlife Fund’s recent ‘State of England’s Chalk Streams’ report says that 77 per cent of our chalk streams are failing to meet the Good status required by the EU’s Water Framework Directive. We are working with the Environment Agency, Natural England and the World Wildlife Fund to deliver a programme of river restoration measures to improve nine of our chalk stream habitats here in Norfolk.

“The River Babingley has been straightened and controlled in places using steep man-made banks and weirs. It also suffers from silt build-up from local roads and farms. The weirs back up water, slowing the flow and ponding the river. They also make fish passage difficult, as water surges through a narrow opening, making life difficult for the less able swimmers such as bullhead and stone loach.

Babingley river weir


“Where the channel has been straightened and lowered, a more uniform habitat has been created which can be exploited very well by a small number of species but will exclude many others associated with chalk rivers.

“Work on our river restoration project here on the River Babingley at Hillington is being carried out by bioengineering specialists Salix and includes removing an old weir and restoring more natural channel shapes and flow patterns.”

Chris Mackintosh-Smith, Project Manager for Salix, says:

“In the past the River Babingley powered many mills, which led to man-made modifications to control its flow.

“Working with the Norfolk Rivers Trust and cbec eco-engineering, who surveyed and modelled the upper reaches of the river to produce river restoration designs, our project includes a series of ecological enhancements. These improve the river’s flow and biodiversity through this reach, making it more natural again.

“We are using local timber and gravel for channel re-shaping, narrowing and deepening, offering a more diverse range of passages and variations in water movement. As well as creating riffles and eddies in the water, the wood and the gravel provide places for the fish to hide from predators and seek shade from the sun. And they offer another habitat layer for invertebrates, which in turn provide food for the fish.

“We have also removed the wing wall and lowered a sill at a brick weir to improve river continuity and make it easier for fish to pass through this reach, and we have installed a timber footbridge for access.”

Babingley River new channels

River restoration work began on the River Babingley on 10 February 2015 and is expected to be completed in early March.

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