Unlocking the Severn

This pioneering project hopes to bring the endangered shad back to the upper reaches of the River Severn

The revival of the shad


You probably haven’t heard of the shad, a fairly small fish that is now having a huge impact in the South West. This endangered seawater fish was once a fairly common sight along the River Severn and was more highly regarded than even the salmon, but the species went into decline after physical changes to the river in the 1820s. Its virtual disappearance almost 200 years ago has now inspired a £19.7 million project, Unlocking The Severn, which has been described as one of the largest of its kind ever attempted in Europe. The project is a combined effort between the Canal & River Trust, Severn Rivers Trust, Environment Agency and Natural England that is targeting the return of the shad to the upper Severn thanks to funding from the EU and Heritage Lottery Fund.

“The shad is a sea-dwelling herring that used to come up the river to spawn, rather like a salmon,” explains Jennie Hermolle, the project’s communications and marketing officer. “It used to be a big sight on the Severn, they came in their hundreds of thousands and they were sent to kings for feasts. Then in the industrial revolution they put in weirs to make the river navigable for boats.” This proved fatal for the shad. Unlike the salmon, the shad is not much of a swimmer and the fish couldn’t leap the weirs to reach their old spawning grounds. A fish that once fed the king – Henry III was sent a load in 1257 to help get him through the meat-free tribulations of Lent – was now virtually extinct. Although recent monitoring has revealed that a small population of around 15,000 still exists in the Severn below Worcester – one of very few populations in UK rivers – the shad, which once dominated the river from Gloucester to Shrewsbury, has completely disappeared from the upper stretches.

Unlocking The Severn hopes to change that. The project will construct a number of state-of-the-art fish passes specifically created for the shad in six places along the Severn and its tributary, the Teme. These fish passes will create alternative routes through and around the physical barriers that currently prevent migration. The work will reopen a vast stretch of river -–158 miles – to the shad and also many other fish. The Canal & River Trust’s programme director Jason Leach says, “This project has been in the waiting for over 150 years. We now have the opportunity to return the eco-system on this stretch of the river to as close as possible to its natural state.”

It’s hoped that as well as the shad, other species such as the salmon, eel and lamprey will start to make their way further along the river, and this will have a positive impact on the eco-system in general. The project also creates an opportunity to engage local people with their river. An ambitious heritage, education and science programme aims to target eight million people, reconnecting them with the Severn. This involves 200 school classes and 100 community groups, and will create thousands of volunteering opportunities.

The fish passes will take several different forms. In some cases, such as at Powick Weir on the Teme, a tributary to the Severn, the weir has simply been removed to improve access for fish. Elsewhere, channels are being cut through weirs or fish by-passes will be constructed. Some of these will have rocks or boulders installed, providing spaces for the fish to rest before they continue their journey. Work will start at Diglis and Bevere in April and May. At Diglis Island, the scheme will also create an exciting new learning space that will restore life to a disused heritage building. There’s a plan to install an underwater viewing area here, so scientists can monitor the migrations and school parties and the public can, on select occasions, get a glimpse of life beneath the water. This will provide a unique perspective on the river and the life of the shad, allowing thousands of school children and other visitors to see one of these huge fish passes in action and learn about industry and conservation on the river.

An open day is being held at Diglis Island on February 17, which will allow locals to learn about the shad and the project’s wider aim, see inside the buildings and meet project staff. Visitors will also be able to find out about a number of volunteering opportunities, as the project wants the public to help count the shad to keep track of numbers, and to pass on knowledge regarding heritage and local history.

Read more about Unlocking the Severn or join us for an open day at Diglis Island on 17 February 2019.

Ed Tucker