The 2015 Cotswold Tree Warden Group coppicing and hedge laying course could not have come at a better moment for me. I was in the middle of some discussions with the Environment Agency about how to stabilise a 200 metre stretch of river bank and, to be blunt, the discussions had not gone in my favour. I was representing a client of mine who lived near Cirencester and whose garden was bounded on one side by the fledgling River Thames. It was my job to redesign their garden and we’d got to the stage where the garden met the river and it was very plain that the river had declared war on the garden and the garden was caving in.
My discussion with the Environment Agency started with an application to extend an existing stone built river wall to cover the 200 metre hither-too unprotected bank. “No” was the clear reply to my application to extend the stone built river wall. Stone built walls are not looked upon at all favourably for some very good reasons which I had not considered.
During a very useful and much appreciated site visit from the Environment Agency it became clear that a ‘soft wall’ was the only allowable way to stop the river eating up more large chunks of my client’s garden. “But” I asked, “What is a soft wall?” And then came the Environment Agency’s reply, the reply that coincided so perfectly with the coppicing and hedge laying course; “It’s usually made of woven willow that in time will form a strong river bank which won’t suffer from the undertow associated with stone walls and it will also allow water voles to live and thrive.”
A five metre high self sown willow was growing on the river bank and it presented itself as the perfect specimen to become a river bank hedge/ soft wall. Using the knowledge gained on the coppicing and hedge laying course and with the approval of the Environment Agency I set about splitting the willow and laying a living hedge along the river bank. Splitting the five metre high willow gave me a 10 metre long stretch of soft wall which I fashioned into a rather unconventional but none the less effective living wall/hedge. I’ve not seen this technique before and I’d be interested to know if anyone has previously combined hedge laying with river bank stabilisation. It didn’t matter that the amount of willow available from the five metre high tree was nowhere near enough to complete the 200 metre stretch of river bank. Over the past 12 months the living willow hedge/wall has thrown up enough perfectly straight shoots for me to comfortably make another ten metre length of wall. This is a process that I will continue until the whole length of vulnerable river bank is protected.
The final job of each stage is to back-fill between the collapsed river bank and the new hedge/wall and this has proved to be the perfect place to use the tons of Cotswold brash and rough top soil excavated during the redesign of the garden. I’m particularly pleased that all the materials for this job have come from their original site and that not a single item has had to be transported by road or been brought in from far flung parts of the country. A further positive result of the Environment Agency’s emphatic “No” is that my client has been spared the cost of spending thousands of pounds on a stone built wall. I’m sure the water voles will also be very happy with their new habitat.