Blog post by Wild Trout Trust Research and Conservation Officer, Jonny Grey:
One of the most exciting and heartening aspects of our work is when ‘word of mouth’ contacts help to spread the love for rivers a little further.
“Jonny… there’s a lot of good things happened over the last couple of weeks…. I’m really keen for you to do a river walk and provide a report… it will all make sense, I promise 😉” — Extracts from a text message to me in mid-August last year, an opportunity too good to be missed! Besides, it involved a new reach of river that I had not yet explored.
We met with the landowner at the top end of the Skirfare, a river with some repute in terms of big wild trout, and walked and talked for several kilometres. He had a vision for the wider landscape which was refreshingly long-term. Not three to five years as many projects seems to be, but 50 to 60 at least. It involved a lot of trees, and he already understood that the river and its tributaries were an integral part of that vision but wanted a bit of steer as to what that might look like and how it might fit into a working landscape, especially with ELMS looming.
I must admit, I felt like the proverbial kid in a sweet shop. We mooched along (always with an eye to the tantalising foam lines on the tannic water), we stopped at various points, and we chucked ideas about freely, discussing the pros & cons. Despite little habitation and development at the top of the Skirfare at the confluence of Foxup and Cosh becks, even there the river was historically constrained by walling, straight-jacketed to prevent it meandering and reshaping parcels of land, threatening field boundaries. And like most Dales’ rivers, there was scant cover along the banks. A few sentinel ash and beech trees, even a lime and the odd Scots’ pine but no natural regeneration of saplings or much in the way of herb understorey because of the omnipresent wooldebeest.
To cap it all, we fell back to the local pub (also part of the estate) and summarised our thoughts over a beer (brewed on site). A perfect day! I drew some ideas together in haste because of impending funding calls and was effectively let off the leash….
The Skirfare is a curious beast towards the top end. Dominated by slabs of limestone bedrock and the semi-porous and fissured characteristics of that underlying geology, at low flows the river retreats underground in places leaving long reaches seemingly devoid of life. Yet that same geology imparts a sound nutrient base for a food web which has evolved to cope with the ephemeral nature of flows and it pops back to life in next to no time. Within the estate, water is permanent and there are several good deep hidey holes that hold a secret or two.
We surveyed various reaches and a couple of the tributaries, just to see what the trout population was like. Given the nature of the substrate and relatively little gravel hinting at a potential bottleneck, it was no surprise to find very few young-of-year or juvenile parr (0+ or 1+ fish). But we found older trout right the way through to the upstream limit on Cosh Beck, and some surprisingly large specimens too. No spoilers!
My hosts looked quite incredulous when I suggested electrofishing one of the tiny little spring fed tributaries emanating from the hillside not 150m from the main river. However, a careful sweep revealed a handful of 60 – 70mm 0+ trout, absolute golden perfection in miniature, and El Dorado was named. Seemingly inconsequential trickles of water less than a metre wide, those channels that are all too often treated as drains or ditches, may be incredibly important for a critical life stage in such systems.
To cut out a lot of administrative detail (and there was plenty), I was successful in securing a wedge of the £1.4M Riparian Tree Fund from Defra, administered by the Environment Agency, prior to Christmas 2020 on the proviso that I could spend the money and complete the project by 31st March 2021! In particular, I’d like to acknowledge the help and support of the local Forestry Commission team throughout the process. We duly scampered around securing fencing contractors and tree suppliers and planters and, despite the best efforts of winter weather, managed to get the job done.
What have we achieved? Just over 3km of watercourse has been protected from livestock with over 2km of new fencing to tie in to existing fencing and walling to allow for the rehabilitation of the riparian zone. That protected swathe extends in places to over 60m from the riverbank. Then ~3,700 trees have been carefully selected to complement and diversify the fragile stock at the head of the valley. One consideration I hadn’t come across before was the requirement for small seeding species to favour red over grey squirrels. We’ve only used plastic tree guards where absolutely necessary and planted in small copses leaving plenty of gaps for the herb layer to flourish. El Dorado and its parallel partner tributary have been entirely protected with an ample buffer and trees like alder selected for the palatability of its leaf litter (yes, that’s a thing!) to encourage more invertebrate prey.
A secondary component of my original tranche of ideas was to allow the river to better reconnect with its flood plain, shake off the shackles of the past and meander more. While that was not explicitly funded, the channel has evolved considerably over the winter and is branching out across the floodplain, naturally extending a beautiful wetland area. Now, it will be left to its own devices rather than being shunted back to it’s artificially straightened form.
Lastly, I will be looking to improve spawning habitat in a few of the other local tributaries, many of which have suffered the same fate of straightening and hence stripping of the vital gravel from the bed. Always room for improvement.
These are the sorts of projects that emerge from serendipitous encounters and can reach fruition remarkably rapidly. With a touch of spring finally reaching North Yorkshire, I’m looking forward to the whips greening up and the bankside cover roughening up. And at some point this year, thanks to the generosity of the owner, I’ll be able to wander through with AN Other lucky soul to see what the trout make of it all and retire to the pub for a pint or two of Lamb to reflect. Lot 272 if you’re interested…..