An Outfall Safari at Oddfellows

One of our volunteers, Lucy Johnson, recently took part in the training for our Outfall Safaris. Outfall Safaris are walks along the river by volunteers looking for pipes, or outfalls, from which water is spilling from in dry weather. Most of these spills are the result of misconnections where homes and businesses have been connected to underground waterways rather than the sewer. Throughout October and November, Lucy and the other volunteers from the Aire Rivers Trust will be recording these, and the impact of licensed sewer overflows, to urge Yorkshire Water and others to take action to improve them.  

In the article below Lucy reflects on her experience and hopes for the project.

Last Saturday I traipsed out of the house with a selection of pens, a notebook, delicious sandwiches and footwear suitable for any condition from completely dry to slight rainfall in a paved area. On the train from Leeds, I struck up a conversation with another compatriot from my part of West Yorkshire, also venturing out west of Leeds to enjoy a walk from Crossflatts to Ilkley for the first time since COVID. Having properly set the world to rights before the day had really begun, I speed-walked my way through Skipton to my destination. Unfortunately, my outing was not to explore the countryside at Skipton (nor my favourite cafés) but to attend training, not something I generally feel well disposed to on a glorious Saturday.

How to spot sewage

The training was the final of four recently organised across the Aire Valley by Sam Riley-Gunn of the Aire Rivers Trust, to empower citizens to take action on polluting outfalls in their local rivers and becks, and was successfully crowd-funded. Within the umbrella of the Rivers Trust, many of its member organisations across Britain and Ireland have adopted the model originated by the Zoological Society of London to record and respond to polluting overflows.

In Oddfellows most people (presumably having had more reliable modes of transport than two early morning Northern trains) were settled and ready to go, provided with a feedback card, a brightly-coloured white-board marker, and a tricky-to-prise open oversized plastic lanyard containing key reference information, and a hot drink. We cracked straight on. Over the course of the day, we learned about everything from the history of sewers to the inside story of how to get Yorkshire Water to cough up a £1,600,750 fine, to the finer details of Whatsapp features and a tailor-made form including photographs, descriptions and other monitoring details.

Two fish leap in a graphic that divides text

A Legendary Pollution Hunter

Rob Hellawell is a veteran of the delicate dance of reporting water pollution to the Environment Agency and Yorkshire Water, primarily in the area around Bradford. Some reports can take years to come to fruition. Rob was instrumental in helping the Environment Agency prosecute Yorkshire Water in Bradford years after the pollution took place, thanks to his careful documentation. He recommends arming yourself with the key phrase, “I’d like to report an incident of pollution to the water course,” in order to get connected to the right phone operative. Provide photographs, report immediately if you witnessed it first-hand, document the location using what3words (be prepared to spell the words out to avoid confusion), and wangle a no longer provided standard reference number out of them for follow-up, which of course as a newly-minted intrepid pollution hunter you will do.

Safely as you go

There were some safety considerations to bear in mind. Be careful to cover open cuts on your hands, use the antibacterial gel provided after contact with the river, don’t wade above ankle depth and be aware that flash-flooding can occur. The energetic pollution hunter also has to know when to stalk their quarry; breakfast and evening times are best, when people are likely to be using toilets, sinks and washing machines. Industrial areas are also likely to be busy at similar times of the day, allowing people on Outfall Safaris to spot and monitor where misconnections mean that untreated water is going straight into the river. While the Aire Rivers Trust are dab hands at cleaning up litter, any major fly-tipping should be reported directly to the relevant council authority (North Yorkshire, Lancashire, Bradford or Leeds, according to the stretch of river where the fly-tipping is found).

Putting it all into action

Brains thoroughly expanded, and knowledge of gooey and unpleasant substances, colours and aromas forever increased, we headed out in a crocodile chain to a small beck close by, a stretch of water which changed in appearance over the short time that we surveyed it. Some more recent pipes sat alongside older infrastructure, including a Heath Robinson contraption from the roadside high above. We had a go at grading the different outfalls once we had got our eye on them, firstly at spotting them, then secondly at judging if they met the 20cm minimum criteria. Wrapping the day up with a group photo on a bridge, we returned to civilisation, ready to use new knowledge on the stretches of river meticulously mapped out by Sam. And no, my smart sneakers were not adequate for the river path, but I managed to avoid falling in and becoming part of the river detritus myself.

Two fish leap in a graphic that divides text

Outfalls at Oddfellows (a poem)

Bright lights, PowerPoint on
Walking boots, bright-coloured coats.
Mugs of coffee, insulated water bottles.
Rob hanging on every word, poised to interject.
Kettle boiled, cups full.
Graphs, charts, images, the works.

The audience are polite, focused.
Relevant questions, print-outs to hand.
We spill out
Onto the pavement
Into the sunshine.
Beck time!

One pipe, two pipes, four
Blue paint, ‘Heath Robinson’
Fast-flowing water.
Peculiar arrangement
Alleviating the surface water.
Many points of interest on a short stretch.

Now time for me to be
Eastward bound.
A kind fellow musafir points
The way to the Wilderness
A little grotto
A haven from the crowds.
A place to linger, but there’s a train to catch

Now to meddle with Google docs
Entice friends to explore
Bring along someone new
One pipe at a time
Follow in Rob’s footsteps
Create a flow.

(Musafir is Arabic for traveller, from the same root as Safari.)
Two fish leap in a graphic that divides text

How do we fix our rivers?

The ongoing pollution of our rivers by sewage is a topic of great concern, as are the roughly equal contributions of agriculture and urban runoff. Well done to Fergal Sharkey,  Wildfish, The Rivers Trust and others for shouting from the rooftops and for highlighting the issue and finally getting it firmly on the agenda of government and regulators. The time has come to work with everyone involved to develop practical, affordable solutions to a growing challenge. We need to understand the issues and work together if we are to fix our rivers.

So this piece is not an apologia for the water companies, nor the Environment Agency, nor Ofwat, nor government – all of whom have some responsibility to bear for the current situation. More, it is an attempt to stimulate a broader understanding of, and a discussion about the solutions to, what is now accepted by everyone as a significant problem. Nor is it a detailed technical analysis, it is a set of observations based on nearly 50 years working in the water sector in various guises. You should also note that although the water companies abstract, treat and deliver our drinking water this issue is not going to be addressed in this piece, other than by comparing the regulatory environment for drinking water with that for sewage treatment - there are glaring differences.

I am going to talk about four issues:

The source of the problem

Obviously it is more sewage than our systems can cope with, that much is commonly accepted. What is far from clear is whether the problem is actually worse and, if so, how much worse, than 10 or 20 years ago before the lobbyists and the media got the issue onto a wider agenda.

Since Victorian times, our sewerage and sewage treatment systems have recognised that when it rains the flow in the sewers increases until it reaches a point where the sewers (which were substantially over-designed by Victorian engineers who did not have the constraints of today’s engineers) cannot cope. In order to avoid flooding our streets, houses and sewage works the excess flow is discharged into rivers -which, at least in theory, will themselves have risen by then and able to accept the diluted sewage with no long term ill effect. The circumstances (flow rates) at which those discharges occur were set, and then engineering designed, using the best knowledge and expectations of the day. So discharges from sewers and sewage works are far from new.

These were days when the public, rightly or wrongly, trusted scientists and engineers to make the right decisions on behalf of society. But things have changed. ‘Back in the day’ many of our rivers were so polluted that few people would dream of swimming in them; the conditions attached to consents to discharge treated sewage were designed with river ecology in mind, not bacteriological contamination; the chemicals associated with things like nonstick pans, fireproof carpets and sofas etc did not even exist, we did not put wet wipes down the toilet (they didn’t exist) but it and we recycled our milk bottles because we didn't have plastics to use in their place. It was a different time with different technology and different societal expectations. What was known and what was acceptable then has changed.

Has the size of sewers and sewage works kept up with the growth of populations? I don’t know, but I do know that ‘we’ used to design them for expected populations many years ahead. That led to an interesting paradox. Those systems effectively ‘over-performed’ because in their early days they were under loaded. As the load on the sewers and sewage works increased, the performance would deteriorate until it reached the design criteria.

I would argue that something much more significant has changed, namely public expectations. When I started my career in the environmental sector 50 years ago, it was a niche topic talked about and acted on by a handful of interested specialists. Over the last 25 years, many aspects of the environment have become mainstream issues and society's expectations have increased substantially. What was acceptable in 1973 his certainly not in 2023. The publication of sewer overflow data and the pretty(?) maps showing the scale of the issue has brought this to the attention of the public. The acknowledged problems, allegedly largely to do with chicken farming, on the Wye have been well publicised, and the problems on Feargal Sharkey’s beloved chalk streams are real and of concern albeit not generalisable in the way he has done. Nonetheless, all of these examples hit the media with increasing frequency and raise the public’s awareness and concern, legitimate or otherwise, about our rivers. No surprise then that what was considered acceptable, perhaps even best practice, in Victorian times or even 20 years ago will no longer meet public expectations


There does appear to be a growing recognition that, apart from anything else, there has been a major failure of regulation that has made a significant contribution so where we are now. So how does regulation of the water industry (not) work?

Every five years the industry basically does a deal, known as the Periodic Review (of prices) that sets the maximum amount the companies can charge customers in exchange for delivering a long series of maintenance requirements and improvements (known as AMP/WINEP[1]) to the environment. The calculations also involve setting a rate of return on investment for shareholders; if you put your money in the bank then you expect some interest back on it, consider dividends (as either a shareholder or a loan provider) to be the equivalent of that interest. The environmental improvements required are ultimately dictated by the Environment Agency, although they themselves receive ‘guidance’ from Defra about those requirements in the light of early estimates of the potential cost. So Government has their fingers in the pie from the very beginning.

I have been involved, to a greater or lesser degree, in all 8 Periodic Reviews to date and recall that on every occasion the EA wanted to do more and the Companies wanted to do more than Defra/Ofwat would allow. Indeed the customer ‘Willingness to pay’ surveys conducted as part of the PR process generally showed that customers were prepared to pay more for these improvements. I recall, back when I was negotiating the water quality requirements for the 1999 Periodic Review, trying to persuade Defra and the regulators to commit more investment to sewer overflows – we knew back then that there was an emerging problem. But no, they either could not or would not understand the issue and were certainly not willing to allow for expenditure on them while there were other more pressing problems to deal with.

Let’s remember that, whatever it might say in the legal documents that created it, Ofwat’s primary focus has always been on keeping bills low and the Environment Agency has been a puppet of government rather than the brave voice for the environment that we all welcomed when it was set up. The arm of the EA responsible for environmental protection has been stripped bare by cut after cut after cut and whilst there are good people doing their best working in the EA they are demoralised by the lack of resources to do the job they want to do.

Without good regulation, any organisation is likely to skip around the edges of the rules potentially leading to bigger and bigger problems – remember the banking collapse?!

The answer? Re-fund the EA with a clear brief to be the voice of the environment, enable them to overtly criticise Government when they take small or large actions to the detriment of the environment; equip them with resources to properly monitor the state of our rivers and the discharges into them. It is a fact that the data underpinning the quality designations of many of our rivers is miserably poor in quantity, and it’s those designations that ultimately drive investment.

And this is where I want to make a brief passing reference to drinking water. That side of the water industry is regulated by the Drinking Water Inspectorate, a body with around 50 employees, has a key role in ensuring that our drinking water is safe. They operate a self-monitoring regime  (yes, the companies take and analyse their own samples) which as never been subject to question and which has underpinned a dramatic improvement in the quality of our water for many years. The quality of our tapwater is rarely questioned,, so what can we on the ‘dirty’ side of the business learn from how DWI operates and the culture that underlies that continuous improvement in the quality of tapwater since privatisation?


Reading my Twitter feed, and following this whole saga for the last couple of years, I see that the proponents in current court cases are asking for, no ‘demanding’, an ‘immediate’ halt to discharges. They are misleading their supporters. With all of my 50 years’ experience, I cannot think of a way to stop these discharges ‘immediately’. Their supporters face disappointment even if the judges find in their favour. I read irresponsible talk from those who propose to ‘block the pipes’ – what will that achieve other than flooding sewage into ‘Mrs Jones’ house and I can’t imagine that helping their cause.

I don’t propose to delineate a technical resolution here, just to note that there are solutions, both traditional (lots of concrete!) and more interesting and novel such as nature-based approaches but these cannot be delivered overnight, and it’s only fair to point out that they do not come for free.

These solutions can, and should, take account of all of the pressures and opportunities in a river catchment, Integrated Catchment Management is not a new idea but one which seeks a re-birth and more support from regulators and government. Good NBS can help address multiple issues (remember at the top I spoke about the triple pressures on our rivers – agriculture, urban runoff and sewage?). Just imagine what we could achieve if the parties responsible for various sources of pollution came together with environmentalists to seek the best overall solution for the catchment. I don’t believe in miracles, but I do believe that well co-ordinated collaborative action might get us close to one. Read more about the existing Catchment Based Approach here

Financing and the ownership of water (companies)

If we start from the acceptance that, whatever the solutions are, they will need paying for then we inevitably come up against the question of who will pay. The headlines could lead us anywhere “stop Director’s bonuses”, “reduce director’s pay”, “stop paying dividends”, “shareholders must pay”, “we have paid for this already, we should not have to pay again”, “anyone but customers” are typical refrains – and I’m not going there, because it’s above my paygrade. As is the structure of the water sector, but I do have some thoughts on that which might inform your debate about this latter question.

Some of us can remember 1974, when treatment of water and sewage was taken out of the hands of the local authorities and placed with newly formed Water Authorities. In the hands of the local authorities these services had been the forgotten cousin and had received almost no investment and were almost entirely unregulated in practise. The water authorities were supposed to change this and, to some extent they did although they were not able to find the level of investment necessary to bring our rivers up to the emerging standards required at that time and, most specifically, by the various European directives coming into force. Eventually a combination of political ideology and a recognition of the potential cost of bringing things up to scratch led to privatisation, with the new water companies being able to raise finance in ways that were not possible to the old water authorities and would not show on the public sector borrowing requirement (which was as big an issue then as it is now).

Many would argue that the current model with water companies being commercial businesses who, like  many other businesses, operate within and on the boundaries of strong regulation  has effectively failed. It is a truism that “regulators are always likely to be outwitted, if not captured, by the profit-driven businesses they are trying to curb”. There is a revolving door of staff between Ofwat and the water companies and let’s not forget that the Chairman of Ofwat for the last decade  was formerly the head honcho at Yorkshire and Anglian! We have seen this before with the banks, where everything was fine until it wasn’t and the final analysis declared a failure of regulation.
So what other models might we consider? The commercial model has failed, the nationalised model (in one form or another) was unable to finance the necessary improvements, so what next?

Welsh Water (Dwr Cyrmu) had a chequered history before it finally settled as a not-for-profit company financed by debt and retained surpluses/profits. It has no shareholders and is run for public benefit.
Liv Garfield has recently proposed what might be a new form of company along similar lines.
A recent article in the FT offers helpful insights into the challenges and anything written by Dieter Helm on this topic is well worth reading.
Whilst water IS, inevitably, a regional monopoly and probably not suited to a full-scale for-profit model, the one thing on which all commentators except the political idealogues agree is that re-nationalisation would not help solve the problem.

Geoff Roberts has worked on improving the rivers of Yorkshire, and the Aire in particular, since he started with Yorkshire Water in 1974 where he rose “not quite to board level” representing the company with EA, DWI, HSE and had the ‘environment’ brief for the Kelda Group (YW’s parent company). More recently he has been a trustee of The Aire Rivers Trust sine 2013 and Chairman of the Trust for the last six years. He is passionate about getting our communities to love their rivers again.

[1] Asset Management Plan/Water Industry National Environment Programme

Help stop the spread

A volunteer from the Aire Rivers Trust, Robert Hellawell, was surprised to find an unwelcome new creature in his sample of river bugs from the River Aire.

Robert is one of a network of riverfly monitors who survey invertebrates in their local river as part of ARMI, the Anglers Riverfly Monitoring Initiative. These volunteers from environmental charities and angling clubs use the different species of bugs they find to tell them how healthy the river is. These creatures who live in the gravel at the bottom of the river are sensitive to pollution and tell a story of hidden pollution between monthly samples that occasional water samples would never reveal. They are excellent indicators of sewage and chemical spills, and their disappearances triggers further investigation by volunteers as well as the Environment Agency.

A demon shrimp found in the River Aire at Baildon.

Robert is one of a number of citizen scientist that the Aire Rivers Trust supports. He often shares his finds on Facebook as the Urban Pollution Hunter.

An unwelcome discovery

Robert’s eye was caught by an unusual new creature when he sampled the river in Baildon, so he contacted the Environment Agency. They confirm that it is a Demon shrimp, Dikerogammarus haemobaphes. Originally from the Black Sea it was probably brought here by accident in water brought as ballast by ships. Although it has been found in the River below Swillington in 2016. This is the first sighting of it this far up the Aire. Demon shrimp are aggressive predators that will hunt other river bugs causing problems for the wildlife in the river that rely on them for food. They are not a risk to humans or dogs.

Robert riverfly monitoring.

"If you see things that concern you along our river, like pollution, we encourage you to ring the Environment Agency on 0800 807060. This is a great example of the power of citizen scientists in helping us understand our river and preventing harm to it."

Simon Watts, from the Aire River’s Trust.
Two fish leap in a graphic that divides text

Your actions can make a difference

Experts from the Environment Agency and the Aire Rivers Trust are urging river users to help stop the spread of invasive non-native plants and animals.

“At the Environment Agency we really value the contribution of citizen scientists who share our passion for the environment, and this is a great example of how they are providing really important and valuable data.

“Demon shrimp were already known to be prolific in the canal system, and have previously been found at one site lower down the River Aire. Robert’s findings add to our knowledge base of the movements of Demon shrimp in the catchment and will alert other river users and samplers to also look out for this species in neighbouring areas.”

Rachel Spry, an Environment Officer for the Environment Agency in Yorkshire.

The Environment Agency is urging people to ‘Check, Clean, Dry’ their clothing and equipment after visiting local rivers to avoid transferring the Demons shrimp between watercourses.  


Why we are asking all river users to Check, Clean, Dry

“Invasive and non-native species such as these can have a damaging impact on native plants, animals and ecosystems by spreading disease, competing for habitat and food and by direct predation. We’d urge people to help prevent the spread of invasives between watercourses by following the simple ‘Check, Clean, Dry’ to thoroughly clean and dry clothes and equipment that has been in contact with the water.”

Anything that has contact with the water and riverbank needs to be cleaned thoroughly and dried until it has been dry for 48 hours. If this is not possible, cleaning and the use of an environmentally friendly aquatic disinfectant is recommended. This will make sure all aquatic diseases and invasive species are killed. More information can be found on the Invasive non-native species website  

Two fish leap in a graphic that divides text

Weir today. Gone tomorrow?

A group of postgraduate students from the University of Leeds have been visiting the riverside in Keighley as part of their "Engaging the Modern City" module. They've been keen to find out more about the river and what residents want to know about it. In response, they've produced the leaflet below.

On the front we will use several modules to present the issues we have investigated and a module at the back to recommend areas of PR activity around Keighley and to summarise our fieldwork

Jingzhe Zeng

A central theme they have been particularly interested in is the old weirs. What was their purpose? What do people hope might happen to them? Should they remain?

There used to be dozens of mills that thrived on the River aire, but now these mills have mostly been transformed into heritage for other activities.

The concern, however, is that the weirs that provided power to these mills still remain as part of the river channel, and from an ecological standpoint, they block the passage of fish that want to swim upstream for food, breeding, or refuge.

The ideal solution would be to remove these structures to make the river more level, or to build fish passes. For more details, check out

Please feel free to share your thoughts in the comments. Do you support the removal of weirs? Why or why not?

Jingzhe Zeng
Two fish leap in a graphic that divides text

Reconnecting the river for wildlife

The Aire Rivers Trust has just completed it's Developing the Natural Aire project. Together with the Environment Agency, we have built fish passes to link 40km of the river to encourage the return of Atlantic salmon.

“It is fantastic to know that these fish passes in the upper River Aire are working as designed, and important fish species are rediscovering their key habitat

“As well as reopening rivers to fish migration and protecting ecologically important and endangered species like salmon and eel, fish passes are an amazing opportunity to reconnect river-resident species and the local community.

“Over the coming years, we look forward to seeing a growing proportion of trout, chub, barbel and salmon run spawning journeys higher up the river and a recovery in their populations.”

Thomas Somerville, Environment Agency's Developing the Natural Aire Project Manager 

You can read more about fish passes here.

Footpath works pave the way for better becks in Bradford

Sometimes the path to healthier streams and rivers lies alongside and not in the water. Local environmental charity, the Aire Rivers Trust has been hard at work improving a Bradford footpath to reduce soil running into the stream - boosting water quality and encouraging wildlife to flourish.

The work is the first ecological improvements brought about by “Better Becks,” an exciting partnership between the Environment Agency, Yorkshire Wildlife Trust, the Wild Trout Trust and the Aire Rivers Trust. Through the project experts from the trusts walked over 60 kilometres of streams looking for ways landowners could make changes to the way streamside land in Bradford is managed to produce improvements to water quality.

“We’re delighted another important part of the Better Becks partnership project is underway, boosting water quality and enhancing habitats so that wildlife can thrive. We’re looking forward to working further with our partners in the coming months to turn opportunities identified during this project into ecological improvements in watercourses in and around Bradford.”

Ineke Jackson, Environment Agency Project Manager

Locating water quality issues

The streamside path is Shipley Glen. A popular area with local dog walkers. Loadpit Beck flows down a narrow valley in Shipley Glen through the village of Eldwick and into the River Aire near Saltaire. It is named after the nearby small Late Bronze Age iron ore (or lode) workings which once forged the axes used to clear the land for agriculture. The project noted with concern that the increasing number of visitors since 2020 had caused a footpath that crossed the stream to widen and erode. Soil from the footpath was washed into the stream by rain and the many dogs enjoyed its cool water.

Creating volunteer-led solutions

Volunteers from the Aire Rivers Trust have built new walls to reinforce the footpath and drains to keep water from running over it. Over the past weeks, they have moved almost 70 tonnes of gravel and cobbles to resurface the footpath and create a mud-free area for dogs to wade to avoid the mud being disturbed. The work aims to reduce the amount of soil washed into the stream as it brings nutrients that reduce water quality and smothers the gravel where fish will lay their eggs. They have been helped in their work by members of Bradford Metropolitan Council’s Countryside and Rights of Way Team.

With the support of our volunteers were improving water quality in Shipley Glen and footpaths for walkers.

“Our volunteers have greatly enjoyed the challenge the work provides. It's good fun but also makes a real difference to the health of our rivers. This project is a great example of organisations coming together to achieve the shared aim of having a healthy river system full of life. We hope walkers will enjoy the new path and maybe catch a glimpse of wildlife, like kingfishers, we expect to thrive with cleaner water.”

Simon Watts, Operations Manager with the Aire Rivers Trust
Changes to our riverbank that benefit people and wildlife.

You can read a little more about Better Becks here

Plastics in our rivers

Plastic pollution in rivers is a major environmental problem that affects not only the health of rivers and the ecosystems they support, but also the health and well-being of humans. In this blog, we'll explore some of the causes of plastic pollution in rivers, the impacts it has on the environment and human health, and what we can do to reduce it.
In a subsequent blog, we will look specifically at microplastics.

Slightly ironic how this trash collector (in Baltimore, US) creates a fish tail as it works...

One of the main causes of plastic pollution in rivers is the improper disposal of plastic waste. Many people simply toss their plastic trash into the streets or into nearby waterways, where it can be carried by stormwater runoff into rivers. In addition, plastic that is not properly recycled can also end up in rivers through the waste management process.

The impacts of plastic pollution in rivers are significant and wide-reaching. For one, plastic in rivers can harm and kill wildlife that mistake it for food or become entangled in it. Fish, birds, and other animals can ingest plastic particles, which can lead to malnutrition, organ damage, and even death. In addition, plastic in rivers can also absorb toxins from the water, which can be harmful to both humans and animals when ingested.

Plastic pollution in rivers can also have economic consequences. For example, plastic pollution can damage fishing gear and boats, leading to losses for fishing and tourism industries. In addition, plastic pollution can also affect water quality, making it unfit for human consumption and recreation.

What can we do about the problem?
So, what can we do to reduce plastic pollution in rivers? One effective strategy is to properly dispose of plastic waste and ensure that it is properly recycled. This includes properly disposing of plastic items such as bottles, bags, and packaging in designated recycling bins and participating in community recycling programs.

Another important strategy is to reduce our overall consumption of single-use plastic items, such as straws and plastic water bottles. By using reusable items instead, we can significantly reduce the amount of plastic waste that ends up in our rivers and other waterways.

We can also support businesses and organizations that are working to reduce plastic pollution in rivers. For example, we can choose to patronize companies that use environmentally friendly packaging and support initiatives that work to clean up plastic pollution in rivers.

Finally, it's important to educate others about the issue of plastic pollution in rivers and the steps we can all take to reduce it. By raising awareness about the problem and the actions we can take to address it, we can create a ripple effect that will help to protect our rivers and the ecosystems they support for generations to come.

In conclusion, plastic pollution in rivers is a serious environmental issue that has wide-reaching impacts on both the environment and human health. By properly disposing of plastic waste, reducing our consumption of single-use plastic items, supporting businesses and organizations that are working to reduce plastic pollution, and educating others about the issue, we can all play a role in protecting our rivers and the ecosystems they support.

If you would like to dig further into the plastics in our environment, then Earthwatch have some excellent online resources.


The Wild Trout Trust contributes to several Aire Rivers Trust projects and initiatives, such as the Better Becks programme. It helps that Prof Jonny Grey, the WTT Research & Conservation Officer, is an Airedale resident and has a good working knowledge of his local system. One of his projects (TROUT), independent from ART but with similar aspirations and goals as the Better Becks project, is producing some very encouraging data.

TROUT – or Tackling Resilience on Underperforming Tributaries – is a 5-year project funded under the Yorkshire Water Biodiversity Enhancement programme. It aims to do what it says on the tin by improving habitat both instream and within the riparian zone and boosting trout fry numbers as a result. The WTT use brown trout as a sentinel species – if there is a healthy, wild, sustainable population of trout in a stream or river, it suggests that there is sufficient water of sufficient quality flowing through a mosaic of sufficient quality habitat to fulfil the various requirements of the trout life-cycle. And being in the middle of the food chain, lots of trout suggests plenty of food (mostly riverine and land-based invertebrates such as mayflies, shrimp & worms) and also plenty of food for predators of trout (otter & heron etc).

Young of year trout fry ~70mm in length

What form might habitat improvement take? Because I have been focussing mostly on headwater tributaries to boost spawning, it generally involves methods to sort and keep gravel free from silt so the trout can lay eggs and they’ll incubate safely. Adding wood, wiggling channels, providing cover and shade, and preventing fine sediment from washing in are all important, as is ensuring adult fish have free access in and out!

TROUT involves 3 sites in each of the Aire, Nidd & Wharfe catchments and I measure success against a number of control becks. I will focus on the Aire outcomes here, but it’s useful to place these in the wider context of other Dales rivers – see my summary of the overall project on the WTT pages, here.

One site is the goit in Hirst Woods at Seven-Arches and it is slightly atypical to the other sites in the project in that the focus is for ‘coarse’ species rather than trout per se. I posted a blog about early developments last year, here. In a nutshell, the work resulted in a doubling in the species count and increased the abundance of fish from 10s to 1000s! Build it and they will come…..

Haw Beck flows between Embsay and Skipton behind the Skipton Quarry and from there into Eller Beck. Tarmac Ltd and another local landowner have allowed us to exclude livestock, plant trees, introduce wood and generally diversify the habitat, as well as remove a redundant low-head weir. Indeed, ART volunteers helped me with the trees. In 2 years, we have boosted the trout fry numbers by 10x.

Pinning woody deflectors into the upper reaches of Haw Beck

The third site, Flasby Beck, flows into Eshton Beck and ultimately into the Aire below Gargrave. It just needed a good dose of wood, big wood, to kick the channel about a bit and provide refugia. So it wasn’t terrible, to begin with, but it was underperforming! There are now 6x the number of trout fry able to reside at the site.

Volunteers measuring trout fry next to a deposition bar created by introduced wood still visible in the bankside herbage

Relatively simple interventions give rise to big wins over a relatively short time frame. TROUT runs for 2 more years and I will be monitoring until the end to see if those population boosts are sustainable. More information is available, here.

Explore the River with us

An old piece that finds a new home as we reorganise the website but still hugely enjoyable. Join us as we take...

The Repot Project

Cogs Start Turning

Many of you will have experienced one of the Aire Rivers Trust’s river clean-ups yourself at one point or another. The range of items that we discover always surprises me, whether it’s a rusty bicycle or even ancient scuba gear. It was during our clean-up season this Spring that the opportunity came up to design and put in a bid for a project that focuses on promoting UK plants. I started thinking about what we could do to link the River Aire to plants. And then it hit me. Why not kill two birds with one stone? What if we could increase the number of UK flowers whilst also reducing the amount of rubbish that ends up in the river?

Some of the rubbish removed from Bull Greave Beck as part of the Our Clean River event
Two leaves sit in a graphic that divides text

Why the fuss about plants?

Plants underpin all aspects of nature. Without them, we wouldn’t see the extraordinary range of life that calls Earth home. In fact, we wouldn’t exist at all. Through the process of photosynthesis, plants make the energy of the sun available to the rest of the food chain. Humans have also found many other uses for them in clothing, medicine and building materials.

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Over millions of years, very finely tuned relationships have developed between the species that are found in the same area. Bees emerge from hibernation at the same time the first flowers are emerging in Spring, ensuring that there is a constant food supply for them throughout the Spring and Summer months. However, this delicate balance is under threat from multiple fronts.

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Climate change is causing important ecological events to happen at the wrong time due to unseasonable weather. The introduction of new plants that would not naturally be found in a particular area also disrupts the natural balance.

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Plants such as Himalayan balsam, rhododendron and Japanese knotweed have not evolved alongside the rest community they are now often found in. This creates a range of problems including being carriers of diseases that native species have no defence against This can lead to widespread loss of native species across an area. Invasive plants also often have the advantage over native plants as they are often not recognised as a food source. This means that the natural grazing pressures that would help prevent them from taking over an area in their home range no longer exist, allowing them to form dense monoculture stands. Examples of this can be seen across the UK and have a huge impact not only on our native plants but, like climate change, damages ecological synchronicity as areas covered by these monocultures do not have the sequence of different plants providing food at different times of the year.

Himalayan Balsam
Himalayan balsam
Japanese knotweed
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Alongside this, urbanisation and changes in farming practices have meant that there are fewer areas where plants are able to grow. The areas that do support them are becoming smaller and further apart, a process known as habitat fragmentation. These patches of flowers are of lower quality and therefore support smaller numbers of the associated animals that you would expect to find with them.

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But it is not all doom and gloom

Whilst that paints a very bleak picture, it is not a finished painting. As our understanding of where the threats to biodiversity are coming from increases, we can implement strategies to combat them. And it doesn’t have to start big!

The Repot Project is all about using your imagination and creativity to literally give new life to items that would otherwise be thrown away. Whether it’s a holey pair of wellies, empty bottles and cans or worn-out kitchen items, we want to challenge you to create a planter that can be used to boost biodiversity where you are!

Volunteers @ Baildon
Volunteers maintaining our wildflower meadow in Baildon
Pollinator on Meadow Cranesbill

Our finished planters...

Freddie the frog created from an old freezer draw and planted with foxgloves created at the Springfield Centre
You can even create a rabbit from old laundry products! This planter has been filled with Meadow Cranesbill!

It doesn't have to stop there...

 If you would like to find out more about any of the topics talked about in this blog here are some links to some really interesting resources:

Ecological Synchrony: Keeping All the Pieces in Place — Department of Ecosystem Science and Management (

(PDF) Vulnerability of phenological synchrony between plants and pollinators in an alpine ecosystem (

Habitat loss and fragmentation disrupt plant-pollinator networks – Conservation Corridor

How Invasive Species Threaten Our Woods - Woodland Trust

Or to find out more about what you can do to protect our plants go to:

Ideas on attracting wildlife to your garden; expert advice from the RHS / RHS GardeningTake action to protect plants and fungi | Kew

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