The River Wild
As river restoration gains acceptance and momentum across Scotland, the early pioneers from a decade past are now seeing results, with the return of life both above and below the water’s surface. ‘Build it and they will come.’
‘I don’t go anywhere without my binos,’ says Dee as we file through a mix of willows, oaks and birch, heading towards the gentle murmur of the Rottal Burn, where it now winds freely through the lower reaches of Dee Ward’s Rottal Estate. ‘Look!’ exclaims Dee, raising his ever-present binoculars. ‘There’s a sandpiper.’
The tiny wading bird scuttles between smoothly rounded stones piled up along the river’s edge, clearly unsettled by our unexpected arrival, but then, having hurried a few metres upstream, it stops to look back at us, apparently reluctant to abandon such a prized section of river. Clearly, this is now valuable real estate.
‘We’ve got regenerating riparian woodland, and generally there’s a lot more wildlife around.’
It’s been ten years since the ‘rewiggling’ of the Rottal Burn was completed, freeing the water from its previous imprisonment. For over 170 years, the river had existed as a straightened canal, but then, the local Fishery Board approached Dee with aerial photography revealing the wandering course of the river’s original path. They offered a proposal to re-meander this stretch of the burn and the results have been dramatic.
‘When the old channel flooded, salmon eggs and fry were simply washed away,’ says Dee. However, since the re-meandering work, the river is allowed to spill out, dispersing its energy instead of scouring the channel bare. ‘This river is now dynamic,’ explains Dee, ‘it’s free-flowing and moves around, rising and falling naturally. We’ve got regenerating riparian woodland, lots of wildflowers growing, river health is improving, the number of salmon and fry in the river has gone up, and generally there’s a lot more wildlife around.’
As if to reinforce his point, an oystercatcher cries shrilly overhead, arching above us in a stiff-winged stoop. Dee believes they have also experienced an increase in the number of woodcock along the restored stretch of river, with lapwings and curlews gathering in the surrounding fields. They are also seeing otters more often, with one immediate benefit. ‘I don’t know whether they kill the mink or chase them off,’ says Dee, ‘but since the otters have come back, we’ve had very few problems with mink.’
The increase in salmon has been particularly dramatic, with the Fishery Board reporting five times the amount of fry and parr compared to counts before the re-meandering. ‘They talk about moving baselines,’ says Dee. ‘I think we’re used to not seeing much wildlife and so what we see, we think is the norm. But I think we need to get back to where the norm is much greater abundance.’
‘As global warming kicks in, trying to keep water cold for salmon and trout is vitally important.’
That inevitably includes an increase in fish predators like otters and goosanders, but Dee is philosophical about their impact. ‘What we’ve done is create these areas of woody debris and root complexes where young fish can hide.’ It’s a simple solution to a widely reported problem and it seems to work. The other factor Dee is keen to emphasise is the growth of riparian trees. ‘Trees are a massive source of insect life falling into the river, providing food for fish,’ he explains. ‘Leaves also fall into the river, providing nutrients, and the trees create shade. As global warming kicks in, trying to keep water cold for salmon and trout is vitally important.’
As we look around, the rapid natural regeneration of riverside trees is apparent, with leggy willows and dark alders sprouting profusely along exposed bars of the stony riverbed. The alders in particular form a mass of low-spreading thickets, contrasting with the infant trees poking out of tree tubes higher up the banks. Dee explains that it had all looked very bare after the work was first finished and initially, tree planting had felt necessary. ‘The habit of managing the environment is a hard one to break,’ he acknowledges.
‘I feel we’ve abused our rivers for hundreds of years, so I think it’s time we do what’s right for them.’
Dee points to a hole in the treeline downstream where the river recently broke through. ‘At first, I wanted to replant that gap, but you can see it’s already filling in. If we’d known how fast that happens, we wouldn’t have bothered with any planting.’ It’s clear, however, that Dee feels all the work has been a huge success and he is almost evangelical about the benefits.
‘Personally, I feel we’ve abused our rivers for hundreds of years, so I think it’s time we do what’s right for them,’ says Dee with characteristic directness. ‘The rewiggling slows the flow, and that’s better for biodiversity. Here anyway, we’re getting much heavier rain events, and it’s really helping on the flood management side of things too.’
So, what advice would he offer other landowners considering similar projects? ‘Do it!’ says Dee emphatically. ‘Get into partnerships with other landowners in your area, and get NGOs on board – conservation bodies and Fishery Boards, as well as the local council. It’s very easy as a landowner to think that everyone is out to get you, but when you bring a whole team together and everyone shares the same goals, you realise how much you have in common, and you can get these great projects done.’
As an added benefit, with a track record for delivery, Dee says they’re now finding it easier to get money for other environmental schemes on the estate. What’s next then, I wonder. ‘I think beavers will do a great job in the right place, especially in a system like this where they could help flood management by slowing the flow.’ Dee is in the early stages of considering whether these industrious ecosystem engineers could be reintroduced to the Rottal Estate – provided his neighbours don’t object.
For now, however, Dee is more interested in the habitat restoration work. ‘You need to get the habitat right first,’ he reflects. As proof of this philosophy, he describes how a pair of grey partridges recently showed up, entirely unexpectedly. ‘It just goes to show,’ says Dee, ‘If you build it, they will come. That’s the magic of it.’