Published on 13 June 2023
Jo Furtado, RENEW PhD student
“Earlier this month I joined other PhD students from RENEW at the Red River in Cornwall to attend a guided walk led by Dr John Clarke, a co-investigator on RENEW’s Theme 2 (Community Action)…
John previously ran a research project based at the Red River, exploring how creative writing can transform our relationship with a polluted, post-industrial river. Joining us was Steve Jones, the joint coordinator for the Red River Rescuers, a lifelong advocate for wildlife in the area and an expert in Cornish insects.
The Red River has been worked by hand since Roman times, winning it the accolade of one of the most modified streams in Britain. Along with other metals, the river was important for tin mining, an industrial process which generated the red iron oxides that gave the river its name. The ghosts of this working history remain around the riverbanks today, with the abandoned chimneys and flues of arsenic production and the settling tanks of tin streaming now becoming increasingly reclaimed by vegetation.
Above: The Red River in Cornwall – a tainted waterway where nature has found a way.
Despite the historically polluted water and unnatural flow of the straightened river, these old mining works have become important habitats for flora and fauna and one of the few sites where the Scarce Blue-tailed Damselfly thrives in the UK. This blue-tail favours the shallow-watered, silty bottom of old settling tanks like those at Great Wheal Seaton, where we were lucky enough to see the juvenile orange damselfly, a green-mature female of the same species and several papery skeletons that are left clinging to reed stems once the larvae emerge as an adult, all expertly found and identified by Steve.
Above: The Common Blue Damselfly (Enallagma cyathigerum), an abundant species and resident of the Red River.
As well as damselflies, the tanks were home to a diverse mix of insects, birds and wildflowers and for this reason, the Red River raises questions about how and what we value as ‘nature’. The Red River is a very human landscape, shaped by the working hands of the generations who came before us. All that endeavour made the Red River what it is today, and this heritage is still crucial to the identity of the local communities. The scars left behind by these past chapters of human progress have been gradually co-opted by nature, becoming a stronghold for biodiversity, and even contributing to the evolution of a distinct species of trout that can withstand the polluted waters.
But today natural succession is leading to some of those habitats being lost again, engulfed by willow, gorse and other fast-growing shrubs which require continual suppression: something local groups do not have the resources to maintain. And even with nature reclaiming some parts of the river, it is still impacted by 21st-century human influence. For example, this stretch of the river, tucked beside an A-road, is heavily used by tourist traffic on its way to experience the ‘wild’ of the Cornish coast, a part of the river with sewage discharged into by water companies and a depository of our shopping trolleys, car tyres and other fly-tipped rubbish. It also provides access to green space for nearby communities, including some of the most deprived areas in Cornwall.
How do we – and who gets to – decide what is valuable from a biodiversity perspective? What do we use as a baseline for assessing what the river ‘should’ look like? Should we aim for a pre-human ideal of untouched wet woodland or maintain it for rare species like the Scarce Blue-tailed Damselfly? Should we just let nature do its thing, or should we intervene and try to manage it for the species or aesthetics we value? Who should this area serve, and how should they be involved? Such questions may not have easy answers and inevitably require compromises and workarounds, but they represent important themes that the RENEW programme is working to answer.
Above: Members of the RENEW PhD cohort 2023 with John Clarke and Steve Jones, joint coordinator for the Red River Rescuers
This experience led to some rich and thoughtful discussions during our visit. One of my takeaways came from an anecdote John told us about feeling nostalgic for the red colour of the river of his childhood – now gone, with the last tin mine closed – in essence, nostalgic for waters polluted by heavy metals.
Humans relate to landscapes in complex ways. What one person sees as spoiled, another may view as beautiful or meaningful in ways that may not be easy to understand or obvious to the outside observer. Understanding the complex relationships between people, identity, landscapes, and biodiversity is a core focus of the research of the RENEW programme, and this visit provided an excellent chance for us to explore this in a tangible way.