George enjoying a dip in the Avon

‘River river’ – wild swimming in the Avon

Twice a day, in the world before coronavirus, I would cycle over the River Avon whilst commuting to work at the Avon Wildlife Trust offices in central Bristol. With the second highest tidal range in the world, the river could look completely different in the morning to the evening. 

A full swollen river in the morning sun can look calm, still and inviting, but come the evening the water is furiously gushing out towards the Severn Estuary, exposing enormous mud banks with gulls, mallards and waders feeding on the invertebrates within.

Avon kingfisher: by George

The Avon is host to a wide range of wildlife. Cormorants are frequently drying their wings in the trees on the river’s edge, otters are often reported, last year a seal paid Bristol a visit and there is even the urban legend of the Bristol Crocodile! However, is there room for the return of a very important mammal into our urban waterways? Could we see beavers back in Bristol? 

The word Avon comes from the Welsh ‘afon’ meaning river. Therefore the River Avon literally means “river river”. It is the 19th longest river in the UK running from near Chipping Sodbury in South Gloucestershire through Bristol to join the Severn Estuary. The history of the city of Bristol is deeply entwined with the Avon and the name Bristol itself is derived from the old English meaning ‘place by the bridge’. The river enabled the transport of goods and people, allowing Bristol to become the second most important port in the country by the 1300s. By the 18th Century, Bristol had become one of the British Empire’s primary slaving ports. The city still grapples with this difficult history today, as  we saw last summer with the toppling of the statue of Edward Colston.

Nothing quite like a river dip!

With less trade and transport using the river today, the Avon now plays a different role in the lives of most Bristolians. The floating harbour that runs through the heart of the city is the location of many social gatherings in the summer: paddleboard and kayak clubs enjoy the still harbour waters separated from the tidal forces of the river and boat tours and taxis regularly tour visitors around the city. The river itself is enjoyed by tourists and day trippers who want to enjoy the views of the river and the Avon gorge from the Clifton suspension bridge, or see the wildlife of the river along the nature trail that runs through Bristol to Bath. For myself and several of my friends, the river now plays a newly important part in our lives as we have discovered the benefits and joys of wild swimming. 

Two weeks before we were plunged into the first national lockdown, I underwent a second surgery for ligament reconstruction and cartilage repair in my right knee. Despite feeling sore and sorry for myself as I recovered, I was extremely grateful that I managed to have the operation  just a few days before surgeries across the country were cancelled. As the nation enjoyed their daily exercises and Joe Wickes classes, I spent most of my time reading books in the garden, icing my knee and swallowing ibuprofen. The rehab after my surgery was long and slow. I had been told to wait at least 12 months before returning to sport. However one thing I could try was swimming, and since pools and leisure centres  were shut, wild swimming provided a way for me to swim..

Sunrise on the Avon

Like most forms of physical exercise, the benefits of swimming to our physical and mental health are well known, but we are now becoming increasingly aware of the benefits of cold water swimming. For me, a big part of the appeal was the benefit of the anti-inflammatory and pain reducing powers of cold water on my recovering knee. Swimming has  been shown to lower your heart rate and blood pressure, with cold water exposure in particular dramatically boosting your metabolic rate, and releasing a burst of dopamine.  No matter what you are worrying about in your day-to-day life, however full your inbox is, whatever is going on in the news, when you enter the cold water your head is completely cleared of all doubts and worries. You can only think about one thing: the cold. After a few difficult seconds and deep breaths, the initial shock fades and you can relax into the water. The shock improves over time and when I leave the water I am noticeably in a better mood (it helps when dog walkers and passers by say hello and offer congratulations!) 

Working as part of the learning team for Avon Wildlife Trust, I often talk to people about ‘nature connection’. Research has shown that those of us who feel more connected to nature report feeling more satisfied with life, happier and less anxious, and are  also more likely to engage in sustainable behaviours. I therefore spend a lot of time trying to connect people with nature for the benefit of wildlife, the environment, and their own wellbeing. A fantastic way to get connected to an environment is to submerge yourself in it. Whilst swimming I have come eye to eye with moorhens and had kingfishers blur over my head. When I am in the river, I feel truly connected to the wild world. Perhaps  everyone should give wild swimming a go! 

There is only one thing that spoils wild swimming for me: the state of our rivers. Only 14% of rivers in England are considered to be of a good ecological status and unfortunately the river Avon is not one of these. Last year it was reported that raw sewage was still entering the river. Imagine if there was a way to improve the ecological status of our rivers, improve the quality of water and also reduce flood risk at the same time? 

Beaver head swimming. Credit Gordon Muir, Perthshire

Enter: the Beaver. 

The beaver is an incredible animal that has been missing from our ecosystems for 400 years. If we can continue to reintroduce these magnificent mammals across the country, we could all enjoy the benefits they bring. Their dams can slow the speed of water, reducing the risk of floods and damage, the likes of which we have seen on the Cumberland road – a busy road in Bristol that fell into the river after heavy rain in January 2020. 

The presence of these dams can also improve water quality by removing sediment, phosphorus and nitrogen, improving it for other wildlife (and swimming humans). This activity also helps reduce the amount of soil run off from nearby farmlands into the rivers. 

Biodiversity also increases thanks to the presence of the beavers. Through their dam building and wetland creation, these keystone species can lead to increases in populations of insects, birds and even other mammals such as otters and water voles.  In January last year, Bristol city council became the first city in the UK to declare an Ecological Emergency due to the extremely worrying declines in biodiversity. Bringing back beavers will be a brilliant, cheap, natural and exciting way to help reverse these horrendous declines.

Avon mute swans: by George

In addition to the improved water quality, reduced flood risk and increased biodiversity, I believe that the beaver is also an important source of inspiration. A living embodiment of the commitment we are making to taking action to reverse the decline of wildlife. The excitement of seeing the world’s second largest rodent back in the wild could inspire a new generation of conservationists and environmentalists. Last summer, I was able to  take out a group of young volunteers for some socially-distanced badger watching. After waiting quietly in the dark, nervously hoping they would show, three badgers emerged from the set and began feeding right in front of us.  For some of the volunteers these were the first live badgers they had ever seen. It was inspiring to see them so excited, happy and energised. I hope one day we will be able to run similar trips taking young people from the city out to witness an animal that has previously been extinct and show them how  we are making positive changes for their futures. 

Beavers are magic creatures that can engineer the ecosystem and provide a multitude of benefits for humans and wildlife. Living in a city with such rich links to its river, I believe it would be a no-brainer to return this wonderful rodent to the catchment area of the River Avon. It would be an inspiring, exciting, natural way to reduce flood risk, improve water quality and increase biodiversity across the whole region. Swimming in a river that has been cleaned by beavers would make wild swimming that much wilder.*

Contact us for support at info@beavertrust.org and visit www.beavertrust.org for more information and to arrange a trip to the Cornwall Beaver Project.

(*This blog has been written by independent writers outside of our organisation. Beaver Trust welcomes a breadth of opinions, and those expressed within this blog do not necessarily reflect those of the Beaver Trust.)

George Cook, Avon Wildlife Trust

George Cook

George is a nature and wildlife lover living in Bristol. Currently working for the Our Bright Future project in the learning team for Avon Wildlife Trust, he is passionate about connecting people with nature and making nature accessible for everyone.

#beavers #beaverbelievers #beavolution

© George Cook 2021.