Riverbanks have long been lauded in song and story. There’s something special about where land meets water, boundary lines of green and blue, where fern-fringed banks flank flowing river, where weeping willows lazily trail their fingers through water. Folklore is rife with mysterious river dwellers, the kelpie, grindylow and afanc. Beyond poetry and myth, where land and freshwater meet is also significant in ecological terms, and these intermediary zones are known as riparian areas. Riparian areas are the borderland between rivers, streams and the land around them, connecting the land to the river, and includes the exposed bars of land around a river and the flood plains that extend beyond it.
Riparian zones are essential for healthy ecosystems. They naturally store water and accumulate sediment. They act as a buffer zone between land and rivers, protecting the land from seasonal river swells, and protecting the rivers from excessive sedimentation and polluted surface run-off. The root systems of riparian vegetation stabilise river banks and prevent soil erosion. Without this intermediate area, water quality suffers, and is prone to fertiliser contamination, particularly from harmful nitrates found in many agricultural fertilisers. Riparian zones, full of lush vegetation, fix carbon, and prevent land from drying out.
Riparian zones are home to diverse plant life that retain and recycle nutrients that in turn support numerous fish and other animal species. They act as corridors, linking aquatic and terrestrial areas, allowing animals to move from rivers into the wider landscape, important migratory routes for animals as diverse as frogs and otters. Riverbank flora, the trees, shrubs and grasses that grow here, attract invertebrates that make up a large portion of food for fish and other water dwelling species. Woody material, leaf litter and other plant detritus enrich rivers with nutrients and make up an important part of aquatic food webs, while insects that fall into the water from overhanging vegetation are a key food source for aquatic species. Both underwater roots and the canopy of water-loving tree and plant species provide shelter and shade that benefit aquatic animals, seeking protection as they wend downriver, and other species, such as birds, who may nest and feed in this riverside cover. Shadows cast by riverside trees help maintain water temperature and limit weed growth, which can suffocate rivers if uncontrolled.
Riparian habitats in the UK are rare and often fragmented, breaking the essential links between the river and the land. Cambrian Wildwood will in time allow this habitat to naturally flourish, enhancing the biodiversity of both the river and its surrounding area. This important habitat needs preserving, a place of retreat and abounding life, of dappled light and clear running water, for people and for wildlife.