The RSPB's Lee Schofield describes the RSPB's restoration of the Swindale Beck in Cumbria ... The rivers of the UK have been very badly treated. Whether it be dredging, straightening, embanking, over-abstraction, or pollution, and there are precious few that exist in an unmolested state. Tristan Gooley, explorer and author of How to Read Water, has a useful rule of thumb. He says that if you see a river that runs straight for longer than 10 times its own width, then it’s been modified. Keep that in mind as you walk around the countryside, and you’ll start to appreciate just how universal the modification of our watercourses has been.
Finding a truly natural, wild river in the UK is probably impossible, so it’s hardly surprising that most of us have forgotten what one should look like. But there are a few that retain a sense of wildness, with one wonderful example being the River Liza, that flows into Ennerdale Water in the west of the Lake District. The Liza gives us a glimpse of how many of our rivers once were before humanity started tinkering – chaotic, free-roaming, messy and intricate with lots of wood to chew on. Naturally functioning rivers like the Liza periodically shift their course. They cut earth and gravel from banks, and reform the material they have won into new combinations. Riffles, bars, pools and islands come and go in a natural river, shunted around with every storm flow, providing constantly changing habitat for a massive range of life.
The Liza gets its name from an old Norse word meaning ‘shining’. It’s a fitting name, as the clarity of the Liza’s water, in stark contrast to so many of our watercourses, seems to accentuate the brightness of the gravels over which it flows. This is another benefit of its more pristine state. The Liza has woody debris throughout its length. These natural barriers help the water to move more slowly through the valley, encouraging the deposition of any sediment it might be carrying, improving water quality as well as reducing downstream flood risk.
This was most definitely not what the Swindale Beck looked like when we took over the management of Swindale Valley, part of RSPB Haweswater in 2012. Swindale is a lovely valley but its beck was badly in need of restoration. Straightened probably a couple of hundred years ago in an attempt to keep the valley’s hay meadows from flooding, it was more like a canal that a river, with uniform width and depth and contained by rock walls and levees. It had no pools and no bankside trees offering shade. Although salmon and trout could reach it, the gravels they needed for spawning had been ripped out by the fast flow that resulted from the beck’s straight and simple profile.
In 2016, working together with landowner United Utilities, Natural England and the Environment Agency, the beck got its curves back, as this short film summarises. Nature bounced back immediately. Salmon returned to spawn, responding to the channel’s improved diversity and natural processing of gravel.
Almost four years on, Swindale Beck is continuing to develop. Every time you visit the valley, there is a new, or modified feature. A deeper pool here, or a higher gravel bar there. There always seem to be small fish in the shallows, and in spring and summer mayflies, stoneflies and caddisflies emerge in number. Every now and then a kingfisher zips past.
Swindale Beck doesn’t quite have the wildness and chaos of the River Liza, but it offers some of the same benefits. Water now flows much more slowly through the beck, which is 180m longer as a result of the extra curves than when we started. But perhaps the most powerful thing about this project, is that it’s been carried out in a valley which still has an active farming operation. The restoration of the beck hasn’t impacted on it at all. The restored route of the beck flows through an area of land that was always wet, dominated by rushes and other non-palatable species, which had little value to livestock. Infilling the old route of the beck has made the area of mowable hay meadow larger and easier to manage. To be able to demonstrate to other farmers and land managers that this sort of nature focused project can be perfectly compatible with farming has given added value to this seriously worthwhile project.
You can find out more about how the RSPB’s work at Haweswater is helping to get natural solutions to flooding on the Government agenda in this Guardian article published yesterday –