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Watercourse maintenance

Maintain your watercourse

If are a riparian land owner, that is, your property contains or is adjacent to a watercourse of any description, you should be maintaining it regularly.

Most watercourses require annual maintenance to some degree. The best time of year to undertake major clearance works is in late September/October, in preparation for increased winter flows and once vegetation has already begun to naturally die back.

A well maintained watercourse plays a significant role in

  • Keeping the land well drained
  • Preventing flooding by allowing water to escape efficiently
  • Preventing localised flooding
  • Controlling surface water
  • Maximising all the functions that the watercourse was designed for

Keep vegetation growth under control

  • When trimming vegetation it is important to consider any impact on biodiversity. Mowing of banks around ditches should be minimised during the animal spawning season of March to mid July.
  • It is recommended to cut only up to just above the water level on one side of the watercourse, leaving the fringe of the bank uncut, thereby maintaining some habitat as well as enabling a clear flow in the ditch.
  • Cuttings from any clearance work should be removed and kept clear of the watercourse or disposed of to avoid re entry which might cause blockages downstream. 

Keep watercourses free of debris eg litter, grass cuttings, and fallen trees

  • Any waste resulting from the maintenance of ditches should be left on top of the bank for a few days to allow any organisms within the waste to migrate back into the watercourse, after which the waste should be removed and silt should be spread onto any adjacent land.
  • All non-organic waste should be completely removed off site and disposed of in an appropriate manner.
  • Ensure that any disturbed debris does not end up flowing downstream and causing problems for other landowners.
  • In the case of culverted (piped) watercourses, blockages within the pipe or at an inlet can cause flooding problems. These blockages can be minimised by regular inspection and the removal of debris.
  • Culvert inlets often have protective grills to prevent debris entering the pipe and causing blockages. These should be cleared regularly, especially during periods of heavy rainfall when debris can accumulate very quickly.

Remove excess silt

  • The same depth of silt should be removed along the length of the ditch.
  • Where possible, try to maintain the original profile and cross section of the ditch when de-silting. If the gradient is altered it can change the flow pattern and increase flood risk either upstream or downstream.
  • Temporarily depositing silt on top of the banks of the watercourse allows for organisms to migrate back into the ditch. It is however essential that this material does not then block the highway grips and that the material is not carried on to the road.

Consider the environment

  • Ditches can form very important habitats and may contain species of flora and fauna that are protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981.
  • Ensure that you undertake the majority of your clearance works after the vegetation has begun to die back in late September/October. At this time of year, there should also be no wildlife nesting or breeding in or near ditches.
  • The impacts of maintenance can be minimised by using hand tools to regularly remove obstructions to the flow of water, rather than using heavy machinery that removes all vegetation.
  • Plan your maintenance to ensure that stretches of habitat are left intact, for example by trimming alternate banks or lengths of ditch each year. This ensures that there is always a healthily vegetated area where fauna disturbed by maintenance can migrate to without being forced to leave the ditches.
  • If protected species have been recorded in your ditches you must ensure their habitats are not adversely affected. To find out if protected species have been recorded on or near your land contact the Environment Agency’s local Fisheries and Biodiversity Team.

Remember to stay safe

When undertaking works within or adjacent to a watercourse, landowners must assess their works to ensure that they can be undertaken without putting themselves or others at any kind of risk. Due to the range of risks posed by both open and culverted watercourses, landowners should assess this on a case-by-case basis

Make sure the works you do are legal

Whenever carrying out maintenance to watercourses and ditches, you must ensure that the works that you undertake are legal. General maintenance is unlikely to break the law but if you wish to alter the watercourse or ditch in any way, or build near it, you are likely to require permission from the regulating body (either the Environment Agency, Bedford Borough Council, IDB) and/or the relevant landowners. See our ordinary water course consent page for details. Remember, any works undertaken without consent could result in civil action.

Many farmers take part in Countryside Stewardship Schemes, which set clear rules for the maintenance of watercourses, including ditches. If these rules are not adhered to landowners risk breaking the rules of such agreements and may be penalised.