Chalk streams are a globally rare habitat and England has the largest number of chalk streams of any European country. There are around 200 chalk streams in the world and 85% are in England – mostly in the south and east. Deriving its flow from springs that rise through the characteristic chalk of the region, the Wye (one of eight chalk streams in the Chilterns AONB) runs from beyond West Wycombe, through High Wycombe, Loudwater and Wooburn Green to its confluence with the Thames at Bourne End. It has two well-known tributaries, the Hughenden Stream and the Marsh Brook (also known as the Backstream). The Wye and Marsh Brook are important for many reasons and we are so lucky to have them flowing through the Marsh and Micklefield area.
The river was historically of huge importance to the area. It attracted early settlers and, as a source of power, led to the building of the many mills that lined its course. At one point there were 30 mills associated with the river, with 20 being recorded at the time of the Domesday Book. Initially most of the mills were for flour or cloth but later converted to paper mills for which the town became famous. The town’s furniture industry also made use of the river to power sawmills and other machinery. As well as the straightening, channelling and impounding for milling there were changes made by the creation of watercress beds and drainage for meadows and irrigation for farming.
Although the pollution created by industry has largely ceased the Wye still suffers from human activities – litter (especially plastics) and fly-tipping, sewage, oil and chemical discharges into drains and runoff from impermeable surfaces all have an impact on this precious habitat.
Chalk streams in good condition support a great range of plants and animals. Water Crowfoot, Watercress, Water Forget-me-Not and Marsh Marigold grow in the river and on its margins. The gravel beds and bankside vegetation provide ideal habitat for insects such as Mayflies, Dragonflies and Damselflies in their larval and adult stages. Other key species associated with them include Otter (spraints have been recorded at Kingsmead), Water Vole and Brown Trout. Many birds can be seen along just a short section of its course. On a walk along the Wye from the Rye to Wycombe Marsh you can see Grey Wagtails, Water Rails, Herons, Egrets and the day-brightening sight of Kingfishers.
There are many local and national conservation groups involved in work to preserve and enhance the Wye, the Marsh Brook and associated habitats. They undertake many tasks such as: silt removal, channel narrowing (increasing the speed of the flow helps keep the riverbed cleaner), removing weirs and other obstructions to fish movement, re-profiling banks, reshaping the straightened course to introduce diverse habitats, tree-felling to reduce shade (chalk streams need light), invasive species removal, planting native aquatic and marginal wildflowers and litter clearance!
The Wye is very special – please help to look after it.