Our northern urban river correspondent, Andrew Griffiths, tells a remarkable tale from a recovering upper tributary of the Ribble…
The discovery of a lone dead fish may seem an inauspicious beginning for a fruitful relationship with a conservation charity that has the beating heart of a trout at its core, but that was the case for Skelmersdale’s Mike Flaherty on his local River Tawd.
Mike’s identification of a single dead trout followed the most serious of three pollution incidents that blighted his river during the second Coronavirus lockdown. The Tawd is a heavily modified river that has been much abused by Skelmersdale’s mining history, and is now culverted in two sections where it runs beneath and alongside industrial premises and housing estates before entering the Tawd Valley Park.
Industry was the source of all three pollution incidents, one of which was sufficiently serious to result in a fish kill. Much to Mike’s surprise, after he discovered and recorded dead chub and dace, he also spotted a photo of a dead wild brown trout someone else had posted on social media: as a flyfisher, he noted that the trout was a sizable one.
“It was a shock to everyone that there were brown trout in the River Tawd at all,” Mike tells me. “That was the first indication; but unfortunately it was dead.”
Like all enlightened anglers, Mike has a keen interest in the environment and this defilement of his local river spurred him into action. He wrote to his local MP who became involved, as did the local media, and the incident also provoked an Environment Agency investigation.
“They managed to track down two of the three culprits, for the pollution from the industrial estates,” says Mike. “No more pollution incidents have happened since, so that’s an immediate win for the River Tawd.
“The Environment Agency really did a fantastic job with their investigation and got positive lasting results,” says Mike. “They’ve been experiencing a lot of bad press lately, but I really want the EA North West team to know they’re appreciated for the hard work they showed with the Tawd investigation.”
But it was the dead trout that led Mike to first contact the Wild Trout Trust, and to meet Trout in the Town manager Dr Paul Gaskell, a meeting that would quite literally lead to a change in the flow of Mike’s river.
While Mike had always been an active environmentalist in his local area (he undertakes his own litter picks, pulling shopping trolleys and other detritus from his river, for instance) he had always been a ‘lone operator’, rather than working with groups.
But within a month of his involvement with the Wild Trout Trust and meeting Paul, Mike had been asked to join the Friends of Tawd Valley committee, where he now sits as the river representative. This proved to be most timely as Mike was keen to join WTT’s Trout in the Town network, but this requires a degree of organisational structure, such as a committee and bank account, for instance, which of course with the Friends group came ‘ready made’.
Paul then introduced Mike and Friends of Tawd Valley to the Douglas Catchment Partnership, where Mike soon found himself rubbing shoulders with the likes of Groundwork, the Ribble Rivers Trust, the Angling Trust, United Utilities and the Environment Agency.
The Ribble Rivers Trust’s Opening Up the River Douglas (OUR Douglas) Project aims to facilitate fish passage on the river and is being delivered with Groundwork, as host of the Douglas Catchment Partnership. A fish pass project fell through, and at a steering group meeting, Mike suggested they remove Cobbs Clough weir on the Tawd as a replacement project, a weir he had known since boyhood to be obstructing the river.
The suggestion was taken up, the Ribble Rivers Trust conducted the necessary surveys which revealed European eel amongst other fish having their progress impeded by the structure, and work to remove the weir took place in early summer 2023. Grateful thanks to the Ribble Rivers Trust for the pictures below, which show Cobbs Clough before and after the work, and click HERE to see a video of this stretch of river now.
For Mike, this project was a case of serendipity, pure and simple. “It all fitted perfectly, it was the right time and everything — it was fantastic,” he says.
Of his conversion from ‘lone operator’ to gregarious partnership activist, he says of the Douglas Catchment Partnership that his motto is now “‘Stronger Together’.
“Everyone I have met has been amazing and the passion they share to improve the catchment is so infectious,” says Mike. “A really fantastic group of individuals and organisations working together for the betterment of our rivers.”
Meanwhile, Mike continues his work on the Friends of Tawd Valley river committee, and working with the Wild Trout Trust, and the local group has now achieved Silver level accreditation with the Trout in the Town network.
“The weir removal is a massive one,” says Paul, of Mike’s progress so far. “He has gone from ‘concerned of Skelmersdale’, on his own, really frustrated, to getting a big weir removed.”
“These are gnarly projects, and they don’t happen automatically. In terms of speed, I think it will almost be unheard of — the turnaround is usually seven or eight years or more, so to get it done within a couple of years of WTT’s original Advisory Visit is quite amazing.”
It is worth pointing out that helping people make connections like this forms a significant part of the Wild Trout Trust’s work. Not just Paul, but all the staff on the ground are busy quietly hooking up people into their respective networks of river menders — when they are not doing their best to help fix rivers themselves.
As for Mike, he is now involved in a lot of other ‘watery’ projects with the Friends of Tawd Valley, such as the creation of a wetland scrape next to the community orchard, which is a joint project with West Lancashire Borough Council Ranger Service, and aims to filter surface water run-off before it reaches the river.
Other projects include riverfly monitoring, and completion of the Freshwater Biological Association’s Priority Habitat Survey — all of which will no doubt add to the future success of the Wild Trout Trust’s ‘Trout in the Town’ network.