Stand on the bridge at Castle Street and look downstream. The water flows, dirty and sluggish, between hard, reinforced banks. There is very little life in the water, just a littering of shopping trolleys and traffic cones. All along the margins, the vegetation is scant. The river is hidden away, as if it is a bit of a nuisance. Not only that, the path that runs along the right bank is narrow and unpleasantly secluded, not the nicest place to walk in broad daylight, and certainly to be avoided at night.

But help is at hand. The Water Team at Wiltshire Wildlife have plans to open up and ‘green’ the Biss through the town. In collaboration with Wiltshire Council, they are working on ways to enhance the habitat for wildlife and create a more pleasant place for the community. I walked the river from Castle Street to Wicker Hill Bridge with Water Team Project Officer Nick Wilson to find out how this might be done.

From the bridge Nick pointed out how the river has a steady, uniform flow. This is part of what makes it barren: natural rivers have a variable flow, running fast to scour out a gravel bed here; slower and deeper there, with ripples and turbulence on the water surface. Further downstream the problem is made worse by weirs, which interrupt the flow of the water, creating a pool of still water and taking the energy and liveliness out of the river so it cannot self-regulate.

The river Biss

A river with a more natural and varied flow will have a greater a range of habitats and so a wider range of plants and creatures of all kinds. Something of this natural flow could be recreated by building ‘pinch points’ through which the water would be forced to run faster. While many of the weirs are fixed structures that cannot be removed, they can be adapted with rock ramps to create a better water flow. Then the hard banks throughout this section of the river could be softened by fixing coir rolls already planted with reeds, creating ‘green’ margins, attractive to wildlife and people.

This is not full-scale re-wilding, we have to recognise what is given by the urban context. But life will come back if it is allowed to. Nick explained. “Without changing the underlying structure, the river can become greener; we can nudge the river to set off natural processes so it can look after itself.”

Further down the river, we stopped by a patch of open land, railed off from the path and overgrown, one of several that Nick suggested could be made into a ‘pocket park’. With landscaping, seating and native planting—maybe goat willow and climbing rose—on both sides of the river, this neglected spot could be pleasant place for people to rest and a habitat for birds and invertebrates. “A good way of connecting people to wildlife.”

Photo of the river Biss

Nick was enthusiastic about the many ways in which this river corridor could be opened up for wildlife and people. The project is still at a design stage, these ideas just a snippet of what is possible, and of course the views of the public will be important. What is at present a space that has been completely neglected, hidden away as if something to be ashamed of, can become feature for the town: a pleasant place to walk, a pedestrian corridor all the way from Biss Meadow and the countryside beyond to near the railway station, and a place for wildlife to thrive.

Discover more about our work on the River Biss

Peter Reason is the author of the book 'On Sentience' and is also part of the international Voicing Rivers project, bringing together scientists, artists, activists, and indigenous people to speak out for rivers.

Photo of Peters book