New environmental enhancements showcased at Godmanchester Mill Steps
Unique local project realised thanks to a committed partnership and collaborative working across the community. A beautiful green space to unwind and connect with nature has been fully unveiled at the Mill Steps in Godmanchester.
On Thursday 9 June, a group of over 30 partners gathered at the site to celebrate the completion of the Mill Steps project. This collaborative venture has been led by Huntingdonshire District Council and delivered in partnership with Environment Agency, Highways England, Godmanchester Town Council, Godmanchester in Bloom and a local working group, the Godmanchester Community Liaison Group.
Benefiting the local community, local environment and local ecology in equal measure, the former mill site was previously an unattractive scene of broken concrete and steel fencing. The Godmanchester Mill Steps project has transformed the area into a beautiful riverside green space for local residents and visitors to unwind and connect with nature.
The newly improved section of river frontage space, close to the former mill site, was part of a wider ecological project to improve fish and eel migration along the Great Ouse.
Godmanchester holds a critical position on the Great Ouse, with the man-made weirs and sluices impacting the migration of all species of coarse fish; including eels. Installation of the new fish pass at Godmanchester has opened up 100km of the Ouse to the sea at King's Lynn. Carefully designed to ensure access by all species, fish and eels of all sizes can now migrate freely upstream and downstream of Godmanchester.
Cllr Sarah Conboy, Leader of Huntingdonshire District Council, said: "The Godmanchester Mill Steps project is a great example of collaborative working with partners coming together to deliver a community-led initiative that leaves a lasting legacy for local people.
"The project not only benefits the local community by creating a brand-new space for recreation and leisure, but it also offers environmental and ecological benefits for our local wildlife. We look forward to welcoming residents and visitors to explore the new surroundings and hope they enjoy all it has to offer."
Environment Agency's Fisheries Specialist, Kye Jerrom was closely involved in the fish pass development, and describes the impact of the project: "Godmanchester and its sluices, weirs and locks had been a barrier to fish for decades. With migration through the town now possible, fish and eels can access important habitats - essential for spawning, feeding and dealing with weather extremes. Environment Agency was delighted to support the project with environmental funding and fishing licence income. The fish pass doesn’t just create a better environment, it also improves the local ecology and benefits anglers and local visitors. While this has been a priority project for us for many years, it was only possible with the investment of all of the partners involved. Collaboration like this is a great way to invest in the environment, get value for money and deliver what is needed locally."
The project's wider improvement works focused on creating a location with naturalised landscaping, carefully selected planting and unique wildlife-friendly features. New signage offers visitors the chance to understand how the fish pass works, as well as learn about the history of the Mill Steps and discover more about the birds, insects, mammals and fish found within the area.
Cllr Simone Taylor, Executive Councillor responsible for Leisure, Waste and Street Scene at Huntingdonshire District Council said: "It is fantastic to see the fish and eel pass at Godmanchester Mill Steps completed. This much-needed project will not only help fish migration, but will also have a positive impact on the wildlife which rely on our rivers. Residents and visitors can enjoy the beautiful green space and watch to see if any of the local Grey Wagtails, known to return to this spot to nest each year, will make their home in the nest boxes built into the walls of the fish pass! Well done to everyone involved."
National Highways/A428/A14 Legacy Fund lead on the project, Joshua Smith commented: "The completion of the fish pass is an excellent accomplishment that National Highways is pleased to have been able to support. The fish pass will deliver both environmental benefits and give the community of Godmanchester a brilliant new space. This project couldn’t have been delivered without the partners and members of the local communities, showing the importance of collaboration."
Godmanchester Town Council, one of the four major project partners commented: "The Town Council was proud to be at the opening of the Godmanchester Mill Steps Fish Pass on 9 June 2022. This project - which has been many years in the planning – provides a wonderful new facility for the town. While the ground cover is understandably sparse at present, the Town Council are confident that this will 'naturalise' over time. Meanwhile, it has removed another bar to spawning fish and eels migrating up the River Great Ouse, and helps to make our town yet more environmentally friendly. The Town Council are very proud of what our citizens have achieved."
The project celebration on 9 June was attended by a range of representatives from the project's many stakeholders and partners, along with key individuals from the local community. This truly collaborative way of working has been instrumental to the project’s success.
Local residents have shown great interest in the works over the last year and are now invited to come and explore this newly enhanced river frontage, and enjoy the associated health and wellbeing benefits of spending time in the natural environment.
The £478,000 project was jointly funded by Huntingdonshire District Council, the Environment Agency (£170,000), Highways England A428/A14 Legacy Fund and Godmanchester Town Council. The £248,000 funding contributed by Huntingdonshire District Council was derived from a Community Infrastructure Levy (CIL). Work on the project began in June 2021 and the renewed site is now fully open for visitors to visit and explore.
District Council Approves New CIL Funding Bids for Local Project
Godmanchester Mill Steps - £48,000
£200,000 worth of CIL Funding was previously approved by Cabinet in 2021 for this project, however, due to an unforeseen increase in supplies and project costs an additional £48,000 has been approved to enable the completion of the project. View the latest updates of this ongoing District Council project.
5,500+ plants and trees and 9 boulders heading for the Mill Steps
The Godmanchester Community Liaison Group (GCLG) and HDC have worked in close collaboration with a common aim of achieving a natural look with the soft landscaping.
The mood board below showcases a number of the 500+ chosen marginal and aquatic plant species including yellow iris, marsh marigold, yellow pimpernel and forget-me-nots. The biggest order of plants on the shopping list is for 5,000 snowdrop bulbs!
A variety of sedge grasses, reeds and rushes will also be planted alongside new willow rolls and reed mats. Two areas will be planted with birch and willow trees.
Planting will take place in mid to late Spring, with Godmanchester in Bloom and the GCLG supporting the HDC Grounds Maintenance team during this important hands-on gardening task!
During March, block paving will be installed in two key areas, including the section shown below. This paved area, along with the new fencing, and the completion of the steps are the final stages of hard landscaping.
A number of ornamental boulders (as seen below) were sourced with the help of the GCLG and will add further interest to the hard landscaping.
These are now positioned in two main areas and will be surrounded by swathes of grasses, ferns, and irises. Formed of a type of green granite, the boulders complement the other stonework and were chosen for their hard-wearing properties.
New homes for Grey Wagtails
Thanks to an idea suggested by the Godmanchester Community Liaison Group, the walls of the fish pass now contain 3 built-in nest boxes that we hope will attract the Grey Wagtails usually nesting each year at the Mill Steps. (Photo kindly provided by local resident Roger Heathcote.)
The three boxes (one at the front of the fish pass wall and two within the channel walls) were created with a self-enclosed brick system design, meaning there's no compromise to the integrity of the wall, nor a risk of flooding. Relatively rare, Grey Wagtails usually build their nests close to fast-flowing rivers in hollows, or in between the small holes and corners among rocks and stones - making the walls of the fish pass ideal.
With at least one pair usually returning to this spot each year to nest, we have high hopes that this new "accommodation" will be readily welcomed by the birds.
One person on social media even commented that the birds would often sit at the end of a fishing rod, so there's a good chance that visitors will be able to spot these colourful birds when their breeding season begins in April.
There's a large group of stakeholders working together to make the Mills Steps project happen. The inclusion of these nest boxes is just one of the benefits to come from this huge joint effort.
Site Update: February 2022, The fish pass officially opens!
A huge milestone was reached in February when we were able to officially open the fish pass, following the completion of the brickwork at the entrance to the Larinier. Over 6,000 people have watched the video recorded by the Environment Agency's Fisheries Specialist, Kye Jerrom, explaining how the fish pass works.
Watch the walkthrough video on our Facebook page.
Old concrete Mill Steps steps are removed
In January, we reached another big milestone in the project with the removal of the old Mill Steps.
This might feel a little bittersweet for members of the local community who have shared many fond memories of using the Mill Steps for fishing, paddling and swimming, as far back as the 1940s! However, as the second photo below shows, the steps were unsightly and in very poor condition.
The good news is that the redevelopment work will still include steps. In the photo below, you can see the start of the new steps, providing a safe route down to a viewing platform. A handrail will be added along with other fencing and grass will fill the middle section.
How the river's changing water levels during the winter months has impacted the project
If you've passed by the Mill Steps site during the winter months, you might be wondering why there's sometimes been a lot of activity and on other occasions, very little. The truth is that the project's progress has faced its own ebb and flow pattern, a metaphor very closely linked to the impact of the river's changeable water levels!
As you might expect, the height of the river depends on a couple of key factors.
Firstly, local rainfall. You might recall that Christmas 2021 was very wet. Secondly, when flood gates are opened elsewhere on the river as part of local flood management plans, this can result in a greater volume of water passing through Godmanchester.
Just after the Larinier fish pass was installed on December 23 and over the subsequent 6 weeks, we experienced some on-site flooding. This meant that progress slowed as we had to wait for water levels to drop.
At this stage of the project, when there was a lot of work to be done close to or below the height of the water, we have had to be patient and work around factors that are largely beyond our control.
The good news is that this phase of the work will soon be over and we can crack on with the landscaping and planting, which are much less dependent on the volume of water passing through Godmanchester!
Site Update: January 2022, The Larinier fish pass is installed
On 23 December 2021, the Larinier fish pass was installed. Those raised V shapes you can see at the bottom are "baffles". These help to slow the speed of the water flow and create a gentle slope, enabling all species to pass through the fish pass. Ignore the x-shaped bars sitting across the top of the structure - they were removed after installation.
This is how the fish pass looks now. As you can tell, the structure has been underwater at some points but is currently dry! Don't worry about the debris you can see caught up in the baffles. The shape of the fish pass has been designed to help move any debris on, while a boom will also help to reduce large material entering the fish pass. And for those bits that do still make it through, we will be creating a safe access point for maintenance.
Looking in the other direction, here you can see the rocks which also act as baffles. They not only slow the flow of the water, but they also provide the fish and eels with resting points, as they make their way up or downstream.
Site Update: December 2021, Godmanchester Mill Steps project to resume
In September we announced a temporary pause to the Mill Steps project, caused by issues affecting much of the construction sector - supply chain problems and difficulties obtaining building materials.
We are pleased to announce that Breheny Civil Engineering will arrive back on site shortly, to resume the construction phase of the project. Furthermore, for this final phase of the project, there will be minimal disruption to local residents and visitors, as only a partial closure of the car park will be necessary.
All of the project's partners are keenly focused on bringing this project to completion as quickly as possible. However, while some issues remain related to the availability of materials and supply chains, it is not practical or possible to provide an exact date of when the work will be completed.
Rest assured that all steps are being taken to complete the installation of a fish pass and improvement works, which will provide Godmanchester with an enhanced and beautiful green space for everyone to unwind and connect with nature.
Site Update: September 2021
Like much of the construction sector, our project has been affected by supply chain issues and difficulties obtaining building materials.
While we wait for the materials we need to complete this project, Breheny's compound has been closed down and the car park reopened.
The delay to the completion of the project is disappointing for everyone, but rest assured that it is temporary. As soon as we take delivery of the materials we need, we will be back to finish creating this beautiful green space for you to unwind and connect with nature.
We'll be back soon!
Keeping Godmanchester Green: Meet Fishtek, the low‐carbon company behind the design of our new fish pass
If you’ve been walking around the Godmanchester Mill Steps over the summer, you’ll have noticed a metal structure being installed in the river.
It’s a fish pass, and when complete it’ll help eels and fish migrate (travel) more freely up and downstream, helping them spawn (breed) and find food.
The fish pass has been planned, designed, created and installed by Fishtek, a Fisheries Consultancy and Engineering company. They’re using their expertise to create something completely bespoke for Godmanchester, taking into account the local environment and wildlife.
Fishtek is an environmentally aware business, both in how they design and build their projects and how they behave as a company. In fact, they’re moving towards being totally carbon neutral.
Godmanchester's Fish Pass during construction, August 2021
Here’s a little more about the company behind Godmanchester’s amazing new fish pass!
Designing a fish pass
There’s lots to think about when designing a fish pass; the species of local fish, the water availability for fish passage, the difference between the upstream and downstream water levels, the spatial constraints of the planned location, health and safety considerations for construction and ongoing maintenance, the flood risk implications of the scheme, the carbon footprint of the scheme, and ultimately the funding available to build the pass.
Fishtek also had to think about how the fish pass would tie‐in with other planned improvements to access, aesthetics and amenity for the wider site ‐ such as the new community green space and mill steps renovation.
How will the fish pass work?
Fish passes help fish and eels bypass man-made structures such as mills and sluices, so that they can continue their journeys up or downstream. Think of a fish pass like a series of small steps up a steep hill, with resting places for you to catch your breath.
Design of the fish pass in Godmanchester was always going to be a challenge for Fishtek, because there’s a one metre difference in height between upstream and downstream water levels, created by the former mill structure. That’s a big jump for a fish or an eel!
The fish pass at Godmanchester is a rock ramp and Larinier design. This type of design helps all species pass through it by slowing down the water speed and creating a gentle slope.
A separate gravity‐fed eel pass will provide the perfect conditions for our critically‐endangered Fenland eels to travel up and down the Great Ouse.
Fishtek ‐ becoming a carbon‐neutral company
Fishtek believe they have a responsibility to reduce their environmental impact, adopting low carbon principles, using energy responsibly and prioritising recycled products in their designs when they can.
They consider the carbon footprint of all projects, minimising the use of concrete ‐ and using lower carbon concrete mixes if they have to use it.
Many fish passes are built, in‐part, using concrete, but it’s got a large carbon footprint. In fact, cement ‐ which is a key ingredient in concrete ‐ is the source of about 8% of the world's carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions.
The Godmanchester fish pass is being created using a special concrete mix which produces 30% lower carbon emissions compared to a standard cement concrete mix.
So take a closer look at the new fish pass when you’re next in the area. There’s a lot more to it than you think!
How the new fish pass will make the Great Ouse a healthier river
The construction of the fish and eel pass at the Godmanchester Mill Steps has been a huge joint effort, with many stakeholders - the Environment Agency, Highways England, Godmanchester Town Council, Godmanchester in Bloom and the Godmanchester Community Liaison Group - working together to make it happen.
For the Environment Agency, more specifically the Great Ouse and Fenland Fisheries Team, it’s part of a much wider project to open up the river Great Ouse, allowing fish and eels to travel freely up and downstream.
We spoke to Kye Jerrom, Fisheries Specialist at the Environment Agency, about how fish passes can help protect fish and eels, enhance local wildlife and create healthier rivers.
Image: Kye Jerrom, Fisheries Specialist at the Environment Agency
How fish passes improve fish habitats
Next time you’re on a river walk, spare a thought for the fish and other wildlife who rely on it for their habitat and food.
Fish need to be able to swim freely up and downstream in order to find food, a place to spawn (breed) or to move away from extreme conditions, such as droughts or floods.
Kye says, "Fish are incredible creatures, who can swim up to 40 km in two days. But they can be delayed by man-made structures such as weirs, sluices and mills – constructed mostly for historic milling and navigation.
Fish passes help fish and eels bypass these structures. Think of passes like a series of small steps up a steep hill, with resting places for you to catch your breath. Fish passes reduce the speed of river flow, helping fish of all species and ages continue their journeys."
Once the fish pass at Godmanchester is complete, the River Great Ouse will be open from the coast at Kings Lynn all the way to Bedford, with further plans to extend that to the full extent of the river's length to Brackley in Northamptonshire.
This means that fish and eels can travel freely up and down it, finding the best places to live - and for eels, being able to find their way to the Sargasso Sea each year to spawn.
Improving the ratio of male to female eels
The fish pass at Godmanchester will help local eels to travel more freely up and downstream to feed. In fact, eels are resident in rivers for up to forty years and during this time they continue to make a steady upstream migration. Amazingly, this will improve the ratio of male to female eels too.
Kye says ‘When you get a large number of eels gathering together - perhaps when they’re unable to pass an obstruction - you’re more likely to see lots of males and few females.
Allowing eels to travel more freely up and down rivers through fish and eel passes reduces the density of eels, which in turn drives a change to a female state – and we need those much larger egg-bearing female eels to preserve the next generations.
Making it easier for eels to pass a barrier like a sluice or weir improves the balance of males and females, leading to more resilient eels and increased numbers of this endangered species.’
Attracting wildlife to the area
The installation of the fish and eel pass in Godmanchester and the resulting increase in fish stocks and eels will affect the local wildlife in other ways.
‘Fish are an important part of the food chain. When their stocks increase, birds and other river wildlife are attracted to the area. Otters prey on freshwater fish, and we might see an increase in the kingfisher population too, as they seek out their ideal fishing spot. It’s not just birds who feast on fish; even predatory invertebrates like dragonfly larvae eat small fish (also known as fry) and eggs.’
Greater variety of wildlife leads to healthier rivers
Working with nature to protect and enhance fish, eels and wildlife has other benefits too.
Kye says, ‘natural rivers, with fewer barriers and natural features like bends and connected floodplains lead to a healthier ecosystem, and are much more resilient to flooding, slowing flood water and allowing the river system to cope with extra water.
Healthy rivers store more water upstream, slowing its release during heavy rainfall and reducing the impact of flooding on local communities – a strategy known as Natural Floodplain Management.’
The Fish and Eels Pass at Godmanchester Mill Steps?
When complete, the Godmanchester Mill Steps fish pass will open up 100 km of the Great Ouse river to the sea at Kings Lynn, allowing fish and eels to migrate freely upstream and downstream of Godmanchester. These routes were previously cut off by the town’s complex of weirs and sluices.
The careful design of this fish pass has been crafted to provide the best opportunity for all species and age ranges of fish including roach, dace, chub and eels.
As part of the project, we’re also creating a new habitat for birds, with a new naturalised rock entrance and landscape. And a beautiful green space for the community.
You can follow our progress.
The History of the Mill Steps in Godmanchester
By David Stokes, with information prepared by the Godmanchester Museum.
At the time of the Domesday Survey in 1086, there were three water mills in Godmanchester. The sites and evidence of the other two mills have long since disappeared.
Mill Yard in Godmanchester is named after the large water mill which once stood there. It was constructed of timber weatherboarding on brick foundations, and consisted of three gables facing east and west, with the large wheel housed in timber to preserve the paddles.
The mill was large enough to house six or seven pairs of stones. One of the pairs was set apart as a ‘grist-stone’ so the poor of the parish could have their grist (cereal grain) ground free.
A working mill
When the mill was in operation, a red flag was hoisted on a very tall staff on what is now the recreation ground, the flag being lowered on work ceasing. This was an indication to the miller at the small mill in the backwater near Huntingdon Mill Common who would be concerned about the regulation of water flow. Raising the flat helped the two millers to co-ordinate their work.
The earliest record of the mill on this site dates from 1499, when it was leased to John Stokes. The lease included a clause forbidding the miller’s wife from visiting the mill and interfering with the machinery!
From the 16th – 19th century there were numerous millers, the last individual miller being Robert Bates, who hired the mill until 1873 at an annual rent of £200.00 which included Miller's Holme, and an attached orchard.
As a working mill, it would have been the scene of considerable activity serving the local farmers and grain merchants. At times there would have been a line-up of working boats and barges both along the mill race above the mill and at the lower level beyond the island, while waiting for the mill owner’s signal to unload at the mill. This flow of business along the river would have been supervised by small buildings on the waterfronts.
The mill over the last two centuries
Eventually a local firm of millers took on the property at an annual rent of £100. They gave up the lease in 1884 – since then, the ‘mill stones have remained silent’.
In the late 19th century an attempt to sell the mill by the corporation was foiled by a freeman on the grounds that if the mill went out of the possession of the corporation, the poor, and especially the ‘free people’, would be deprived of the privilege of having their corn ground free.
The Town Council then disposed of the mill stones and continued to use the building as a stable and storehouse.
The demolition of the mill
By 1927, the mill had become dilapidated and dangerous: part of the foundations having collapsed into the river. At this point, Godmanchester Town Council decided that it was beyond repair. It was subsequently demolished by a contractor from Huntingdon for the value of the material, on the condition that he used local labour from amongst the ‘Godmanchester unemployed’.
Since the demolition of the mill, the area has been left as an open space for viewing the mill stream and river. However, it has become increasingly dilapidated, unsightly and in danger of partial collapse.
The refurbishment, carried out in 2021, has repaired the structure, replaced unsightly railings and restored the area to enable full public enjoyment of this historic site. It also incorporates the new fish pass.
The construction of a fish pass in Godmanchester
In conjunction with the restoration of the area, a new fish pass has been incorporated to allow fish to migrate freely upstream and downstream of Godmanchester, opening up 100 km of the Great Ouse to the sea at King Lynn.
Many of our rivers have some sort of obstruction such as the former mill and its sluices. These barriers stop fish migrating to find places to spawn, feed or avoid extremes such as flooding or drought.
How fish passes work
Fish passes are designed for rivers to help fish ‘climb’ past these man-made structures on their migration routes. The careful design of this fish pass has been crafted to provide the best opportunity for all species and ages of fish including roach, dace, chubb and eels. New habitat for birds, invertebrates and fish is also provided by the naturalised rock entrance and adjacent landscape.
The Godmanchester Fish Pass is unique, with the incorporation of a rock ramp entrance, large boulders and stones strategically placed to mimic a rapid river with a refuge and resting pool provided by the stone work. The upper part of the fish pass incorporates a ‘Larinier’ – a structure that slows the flow and reduces turbulence which would otherwise prevent fish from climbing them.
The fish pass and mill steps renovation has been a huge joint effort, with many stakeholders - the Environment Agency (more specifically the Great Ouse and Fenland Fisheries Team), Highways England, the A428/A14 Legacy Fund, Godmanchester Town Council, Godmanchester in Bloom and Godmanchester Community Liaison Group - all working together to make it happen.
This information has been prepared by The Godmanchester Museum. For more information about the mill and other aspects of Godmanchester’s history, visit our website.
Seals, Swans and Sand Martins - How the wildlife of the Great Ouse will benefit from the regeneration of the Mill Steps
The renovations going on around Godmanchester’s Mill Steps will visually improve the area and create a beautiful green space for the community. But how might it affect our local wildlife?
Photo credit: Candida Hopkinson
Many of us have benefited from being out and about in nature over lockdown, for both our physical and our mental health. And we’re so fortunate to live in an area with beautiful countryside on our doorstep.
But our relationship with nature hasn’t always been easy. The changes we’ve made to our rivers ‐ such as creating weirs, mills and sluices ‐ over the last thousand years have had a profound impact on the local fish and birds and other wildlife that rely on them for their habitat and food.
The renovation of the mill steps will go some way to putting this right. Our project partners have come together to create something that will benefit our community, our fish, birds and wildlife. Here’s how.
We’re creating a fish pass
The renovation work around the mill steps includes the creation of a fish pass. Fish passes help eels and fish migrate (travel) more freely up and downstream, helping them spawn (breed) and find food.
The Fens used to be full of eels, but their numbers have reduced drastically over the last twenty years.
Because man‐made weirs, mills and sluices have prevented them from making their annual migration to the North Atlantic to breed. The fish pass, once finished, will allow them to migrate freely, and so their numbers will increase.
A better environment for birds
And with an increase in eels and fish, comes an increase in birds, looking for their next meal!
On any walk along the banks of the Great Ouse you’re likely to see herons, kingfishers, cormorants and coots. And the 'heralds of the spring' ‐ the sand martin ‐ will be attracted to the area too next year, thanks to the creation by the Great Ouse Valley Trust of a new nesting area (or 'sand martin hotel'!).
Other wildlife to spot
The area around the river Great Ouse is rich in wildlife, with otters, deer and water voles all being spotted on river walks.
You might even spy a terrapin sunning itself on the river banks. They’re unwanted pets, released into the river, where they’ve bred, thrived and grown!
And if you’re very lucky, you might come across the Great Ouse seal. Graham Campbell, chairman of the Great Ouse Valley Trust, told us that 'once it sees you, it’s likely to follow you as you walk'. A sort of river‐based dog!
Photo credit: Candida Hopkinson
Humans and rivers
For over a thousand years, we’ve used rivers to generate electricity, move mill wheels and drive turbines. But now we’re coming together to think about how our use of the river in the past has affected our local wildlife ‐ and to do something about it, in collaboration with our project partners.
The renovation of the mill steps will create a beautiful space for our community, and a better habitat for the creatures who share our environment.
Visit the Great Ouse Valley Trust website to learn more about the sights and sounds of the Great Ouse.
Photo credit: Ian Jackson
Thanks go to Graham Campbell, Chairman of the Great Ouse Valley Trust, for sharing his knowledge and insight about all of the beautiful wildlife we can find on our doorstep in Godmanchester, and to Candida Hopkinson and Ian Jackson for providing permission to use their photographs.
Fish Passes: 5 Quick Facts
You might have seen the work taking place at the Godmanchester Mill Steps recently and wondered what’s going on?
Well, we’re installing a Fish Pass as part of a wider project to create a beautiful green space for the community to enjoy.
So what is a fish pass?
Here are 5 quick facts to get you up to speed on what they are and how they work. And how they can help our local fish and eels. And of course, in the autumn, you’ll be able to visit the Mill Steps see a fish pass for yourself!
In a nutshell – what is a fish pass?
Fish passes help eels and fish migrate (travel) more freely up and downstream, helping them spawn (breed) and find food.
Did you know that our local Fenland eels migrate all the way to the Sargasso Sea in the North Atlantic Ocean in order to breed? They only breed once in their lifetime, and then die. As journeys go, this migration is really important as it means they can meet their life’s goals… and create a new life!
Why do we need fish passes?
We’ve been creating barriers in our rivers ever since the Industrial Revolution - obstacles such as mills, weirs, dams and sluices. Unfortunately, these barriers can prevent fish from migrating. And if they can’t migrate, they can't find places to spawn, feed, or avoid extremes like flooding and drought. This can have a real effect on the ecology of a region - as well as on the wellbeing of the fish.
How do fish passes work?
There are lots of styles of fish pass that help fish 'climb' past these obstructions on their migration routes. Of course, removing the structures and allowing rivers to be wild is the best option - but that’s not always possible!
Fish passes work by letting fish and eels 'climb' barriers. They provide a gentle slope with slow water that’s deep enough to allow the fish to travel. Resting pools along the way allow the fish to recover before continuing on their journey.
Are fish passes new?
Here’s the history bit – no, fish passes aren’t new! There are reports of rough fishways being created in 17th-century France. Here bundles of branches were used to make steps in steep channels that fish and eels could use, in order to bypass obstructions and migrate on their way.
They’ve become more and more essential all over the world as we’ve become more industrial, and dams and other obstructions have become more widespread.
How will the fish pass at Godmanchester Mill steps help?
When complete, the Godmanchester Mill Steps fish pass will open up 100 km of the Great Ouse River to the sea at Kings Lynn, allowing fish and eels to migrate freely upstream and downstream of Godmanchester. These routes were previously cut off by the town’s complex of weirs and sluices.
The careful design of this fish pass has been designed to provide the best opportunity for all species and ages ranges of fish including roach, dace, chub and eels.
As part of the project, we’re also creating a new habitat for birds, with a new naturalised rock entrance and landscape. And a beautiful green space for the community.
Why does Godmanchester need a fish pass, and how will it help eels on their 3,000-mile migration?
All about eels
Eels are fascinating creatures. Critically endangered and part of a European-wide conservation effort, once common throughout the fenland landscape, numbers are now just 5% of what they were during the 1980s. They live in rivers for much of their adult lives, on average about thirty years, but sometimes much longer, before turning silver and preparing for a long and difficult journey. Migrating from a freshwater to a marine environment, the harshest of combinations.
Migration begins on a dark, moonless night in November. The eels make a special, 3000 mile migration to the Sargasso Sea in the North Atlantic Ocean (near the Bermuda triangle) to spawn (breed) - and then die.
In the spring, their offspring make their way back to Europe on trade currents, swimming up the coastline to find river entrances. They’ll arrive at The Wash near Kings Lynn in early spring, and by the summer these baby eels (elvers) will have made it all the way up the Great Ouse to Godmanchester.
Once here, they’ll continue their journey upstream for many more miles, negotiating obstacles and growing into bigger yellow eels – before eventually turning silver and making their own journey back to the Sargasso Sea to start the cycle again.
Barriers to their journey
But their journey from the coast up to Godmanchester isn’t easy. They’ll meet barriers along the way, such as weirs and locks, that can stop them (and fish) migrating.
And if they can’t migrate, they won’t be able to find places to spawn, feed or to avoid flooding and drought.
‘Fish passes’ can help though, by helping fish ‘climb’ past these man-made structures as they migrate.
Male or female?
Unusually, the density of the eel population dictates the sex of the animal. This means that in locations where large numbers congregate, for example below barriers to migration, males dominate. Where the population is more evenly distributed, more egg-bearing females will be present. Barriers don’t just impact migration, they also disrupt the ratio of male/female eels and in turn, the breeding cycle.
The Godmanchester Mill Fish Pass
We’re creating the Godmanchester Mill Fish Pass to allow fish to migrate freely upstream and downstream, opening up 100 km of the Great Ouse previously cut off by the town’s complex of weirs and sluices.
Our new fish pass has been carefully designed to provide the best possible opportunity for all types and ages of fish to migrate easily, including roach, dace, chub and eels. And birds, invertebrates and other wildlife that rely on richer ecological diversity will be able to enjoy the new habitat and naturalised rock entrance too.
Days into the start of the project, hundreds of tiny eels were found when the mill weir structure was drained in preparation for repairing the wall. These eels would have been taking refuge in large numbers, waiting to navigate the structure - a short climb that will soon be much easier!
A place to unwind
When work is finished at the site, it will benefit the community as well as the fish! A beautiful place to take a moment, unwind, and listen to the sound of running water and birdsong.
And as we’ve learned over the last eighteen months, being in nature can help us in all sorts of ways, physical and mental.
We can’t wait to welcome residents, community groups and visitors to this new heritage site. If you’d like to learn more, follow our progress on social media.