After months of hard work extracting spoil using diggers to reshape and create new channels and restore a Lakeland stream to its natural state, the rewards for Lee Schofield were almost instant.
“It was like flicking a switch, the natural process switch. As soon as the water started flowing through the winding channel, nature was back in charge again, and all of that diversity came back, almost as if by magic,” said Schofield.
Gazing at the before and after pictures of Swindale Beck, a tributary of the River Eden that flows through the eastern Lake District near Haweswater reservoir, the changes are obvious. On the 1859 Ordnance Survey the stream appears as a straightened channel, and it has remained that way ever since, until Schofield and his colleagues intervened to put the bends back into the Lakeland brook.
“The river was straightened a couple of hundreds years ago by people living in the valley to protect the hay meadows and reduce the risk of flooding and protect the farmland,” he said. “It made total sense at the time but it has meant the quality of the river habitat has been degraded over many years.”
The straightened channel caused a fast flowing stream, removing gravel for fish to spawn in, removing habitats for insects and despite the initial intentions, increasing the risk of flooding as the narrow straight flow led to flash flooding after heavy rainfall.
The impact on the wildlife was marked most dramatically by the reduction in salmon populations in the Eden, which has traditionally hosted one of the largest salmon populations in the north of England. But since the 1970s, the numbers returning to the river and its tributaries to spawn have fallen by half.
Making Swindale Beck meander, pool and ripple once more through the remote Lakeland valley south of Penrith, was part of a project to restore about 60 miles (100km) of streams and rivers in Cumbria to as close to their natural state as possible. The work has recently been recognised internationally by being selected as the winner of the European Riverprize, which celebrates conservation and development of Europe’s rivers. At a time when rivers in England are under enormous pressure from agricultural and sewage pollution, and while no river has passed tests for chemical and biological health, the work on the beck, and the many other streams and tributaries in the project provides evidence of the positive impact of protecting and restoring rivers.
For Schofield, an ecologist who is senior site manager at the RSPB in Haweswater, restoring the natural process to the beck was emotional work. “The stream as it was just looked like a canal, with stone banks and levees built up as time passed from years of dredging and dumping material on the sides.
“So we had to be quite interventionist ourselves, using diggers, creating a channel, removing spoil. For many conservation projects you do not see the results for a very long time, but with this one, we completed it on a Friday. It rained all weekend and on the Monday when we went to look at the beck, there was just this completely restored river, that curved and meandered and looked like it had been there for ever. It was a really powerfully emotional moment.”
Within about three months, the rewards continued as salmon began spawning again in the gravel bed, made possible by the slowing down of the stream and the creation of still pools and shallows. Schofield said the restoration had improved numbers of common sandpiper, kingfishers, dippers and grey herons and increased the diversity of invertebrates in the stream.
As part of the restoration, the old straight section of stream was filled in to create a new meadow for wildflowers and insects, and trees were planted along the new riverbank to create woodland and provide shade for salmon and brown trout.
Olly Southgate, the manager of the project for the Environment Agency said the international award was fantastic recognition for the work of Schofield and others involved in 100 separate projects to restore the natural processes of the rivers and the floodplains in the catchments of the Rivers Eden, Derwent and Kent.
“River restoration work can provide a wide range of benefits, creating better natural habitats for wildlife and reducing flood risk through innovative nature-based solutions.
“In an ever-changing climate it’s work like this that will help to improve our environment for generations to come,” said Southgate.
Chris Kaighin, deputy director for Natural England in Cumbria, one of the partners in the Cumbria river restoration project, added: “Not only is the project achieving nature recovery, but is also providing natural flood management, innovative restoration solutions, higher water quality, carbon storage and connecting people with nature”.