When Storm Desmond tore through the Lake District in December 2015, it brought flooding and misery in its wake. The so-called extratropical cyclone swamped villages including Patterdale and Glenridding, pounding homes and businesses with raging water and winds of up to 80mph.
The devastation helped inspire a unique conservation project that has seen a mile-long stretch of river “re-wiggled” by the National Trust to help reduce the damage from future floods and return the landscape to how nature intended.
The river, known as Goldrill Beck, had been heavily modified over many centuries through straightening and the building of embankments – making it more akin to a canal. That meant the water gushed through it at speed.
Now it has been dug out, and given back the gentle meanders it originally had.
The initial results of letting the river flow as nature intended are already showing encouraging signs since the work began two years ago.
Not only has the flow of water been slowed significantly, but when heavy rain falls, the waters spill easily into fields, re-creating an ancient flood plain, rather than pouring downstream at a rate of knots.
But the “rewiggling” has also boosted wildlife, improving habitat for Atlantic salmon, which once thrived in Ullswater’s rivers, and allowing herbs and plants to flourish along the river.
National Trust project manager Becky Powell, who began work on the project in 2017, says the catalyst for change was Storm Desmond, which caused an estimated £500million worth of damage in Cumbria alone as bridges and roads were washed away. The arterial A592 road, which runs next to Goldrill Beck, had been severely undermined by flood waters.
“The road did not flood because the embankment is too high but the storm waters eroded the left hand bank and it was in danger of collapse,” explains Becky.
“There was a real risk of the river cutting underneath the road. The situation gave us the opportunity to do something different with this river.”
Over many centuries the river had been moved and straightened to carry water through the landscape more quickly. But experts were able to work out its original route before diggers were used to re-route it. “We re-wiggled it, using historic channels as our guide, constructing several routes for it to follow,” continues Becky.
“The work took 12 weeks and after that it was decided to let nature do the rest.”
The results have been remarkable.
The river now curves and meanders across the land, continuously switching between channels. During heavy rain, the beck overflows easily and spills out into the flood plains, reducing the risk of floodwaters undermining critical infrastructure.
“The project has restored natural processes,” enthuses Becky.
“Now that the river is there it can do what it wants for the rest of its life as there will be no further intervention. Because the river is now flooding the floodplain properly, sediments and silts are being deposited, which breaks up the dense rush grasses, making space for smaller plants to come through. We are seeing Wild Thyme and Ragged Robin come through, which is marvellous. The land is looking more natural, more beautiful and more colourful.”
The flood plain wetlands are now almost acting as a soakaway.
“We don’t want to see those fine silts getting into our lakes and bathing waters,” Becky adds.
Close monitoring has shown that, during floods, the flow of the river has slowed considerably and many tons of gravel and silt have been deposited around the meandering beck instead of being taken downstream.
As well as the increasing diversity of plant life, dippers and other wading birds have been spotted along with otters. It’s hoped ospreys will also return.
“Seeing the changes has been wonderful,” says Becky. “I have a two-year-old daughter, Beth, and, hopefully, we have done something which will make life a little bit better for her in the future.”
The project is one of many completed through the award-winning Cumbria River Restoration Strategy, led by the Environment Agency and Natural England.
The hope is that by showcasing solutions, more rivers can be restored to benefit people and nature.
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HOW WE CAN SAVE OUR WILD ISLES
The National Trust, the RSPB and WWF are calling on governments to: Heed the call in the People’s Plan for Nature to take urgent action to restore all rivers, ponds, lakes and wetlands to a healthy ecological status, and to better manage our water resources by helping consumers reduce their water use, and tackling sewage, over-abstraction and leaks; enforce existing protections for water and ensure that public enforcement agencies have the resources they need to carry out this function; and reward farmers properly for creating space for nature and water alongside our rivers – for example by enabling them to maintain wide margins of land alongside our riverbanks and reduce the use of fertilisers and manure.
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