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
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.
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.
“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
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).
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.
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.
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.
An old piece that finds a new home as we reorganise the website but still hugely enjoyable. Join us as we take...
Georgia Oakenfold, who did a Kickstart placement with the Trust, explains why we use tree guards and considers the problems they cause for our environment.
At The Aire Rivers Trust, one of our main winter activities is tree planting. Over the 2022/23 winter planting season (1st November – 30th April) we managed to plant 3635 whips! Whips are baby trees, typically they are around 2-3 years old and under 1 metre tall. We choose to put tree guards on our newly planted trees to protect them from animals that might eat them and from harmful chemical sprays. The guards also act like a mini greenhouse; this gives the trees a nice environment to grow in and their tall, narrow design means that the trees reach up through them for the light which encourages them to grow.
Tree guards were invented in 1979 and since then, almost all of them have been made from plastic. Unfortunately, plastic is not an environmentally friendly material; the average water bottle takes about 450 years to decompose, meaning that for hundreds of years, plastic builds up in places like landfills, on the streets, or in our rivers. In 2019, Greenpeace did a study of 13 UK rivers and found plastic in all of them! They stated that this is the case because once plastic gets into a river, it is almost impossible to completely remove it all, especially if they are microplastics.
Here in the UK, 12% of our land is covered by forests. This is a much smaller percentage than the likes of Germany who have 32% of their land covered by forests, so the UK need to be planting a lot more trees. One of the things we can do to help raise the number is to ensure the survival of the whips that we plant, and using guards is a way of doing this. Trees are essential for life on Earth; they release oxygen which humans and thousands of other beings on Earth need to survive. Trees also create habitat for wildlife, food for birds and other animals, and help protect against flooding because they catch some of the rainwater flowing into rivers and other bodies of water which lowers the chances of them overflowing.
85% of trees that are planted with guards around them survive, compared to 50% of trees that are planted without a guard. On top of this, if the tree guard is kept on for 5 years, about 99% of trees survive! In recent years, deer and grey squirrel populations have increased and both animals will eat parts of a baby tree or even the whole thing. Trees have less natural protection now because a lot of them are planted in towns and cities where there aren’t many spikey thorn bushes etc to keep animals away from them. In towns and cities, they are also more likely to be damaged by humans.
We are currently looking into what we can do about this issue. We want to protect the trees to help them survive but we also want to make sure everything we do is as environmentally friendly as possible, and that would mean using an alternative to plastic tree guards. Have you seen any products or methods you'd like to see used in the Aire valley?
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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:
Or to find out more about what you can do to protect our plants go to: