For many years, the banks of the river Dee in Chester have been part of the city: for launching boats both pleasure and commercial; forming a particularly lethal obstacle on Chester Golf Course; for promenading; as a backdrop to Chester City Walls and Tower; and, surprisingly, as part of people’s back gardens. In fact, almost the whole northern/eastern bank of the Dee opposite Chester Meadows is occupied by gardens (the rest is a public park). As the river is also a site of European importance for nature conservation, this creates some interesting paperwork when people want to remodel their garden space.
I was asked to provide a report to inform Habitats Regulations Assessment for a small domestic development consisting of the amalgamation of two existing gardens on the riverbank to form a larger landscaped space, with a new shed-cum-summerhouse. The river is designated as a Special Area of Conservation for its aquatic flora including floating water-plantain, lampreys, salmon and bullhead populations and otters.
I studied the project plans, visited the site and spent a long time reading Natural England’s Conservation Objectives for the river. I felt I could rule out floating water-plantain and bullhead, as there were no records anywhere near Chester and, in any case, habitat conditions were unfavourable for these species. That left aquatic flora in general, lampreys and salmon and otter.
This section of the river is popular with boats both private and commercial, meaning that there is little in the way of aquatic flora. I felt confident that the aquatic flora qualifying feature wasn’t represented in the vicinity of my study site.
Turning to otters, we know that they will use urban rivers, even places which are very busy with people, as part of their wider territories. Otter spraint has been found on tributaries of the Mersey in urban Warrington, and there are regular sightings on the Mersey now, but only in secluded places. I concluded that otters were likely to be using the river Dee through Chester, even though there were few records for the local area. It did, however, seem unlikely that there would be any otter holts (hiding places) along this stretch of river, so if anything this section would be used for feeding and getting from A to B. I couldn’t imagine how remodelling someone’s garden could possibly affect that.
The last species to be considered were the lampreys and Atlantic salmon. All of these are migratory fish, starting their life in the upper reaches of the river, travelling downstream to the sea, growing to maturity there and coming back up the river as adults to spawn and begin the cycle again. I found it strange to think of the entire population of the river Dee catchment swimming past my client’s garden, but it must happen, or they would never get to the sea or back to the spawning grounds. This means that every part of the river between the sea and the spawning grounds is important. Every section must have good water quality, places for fish to hide from predators if needed and must be free from barriers affecting the ability of fish to pass through. If there is a problem in just one place on the main river which prevents fish passage, the entire population is under threat. I was glad to see that my client was not proposing any material changes to the boundary of the river, all services would connect to the mains up by the road and that there would be no changes to surface water flow arrangements. This meant that I could be confident that the project would not have any effects on fish.
Overall, then, I was happy to conclude that the project would have no likely significant effects on the river, its habitats or its populations of important species like floating water-plantain.