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

River Aire Care

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...

How Fish Passes Work

As we come to the end of Developing the Natural Aire, SImon Watts explains why building fish passes matters.

All fish need to move to feed, breed and shelter. Even fish who spend their whole lives in the river can travel considerable distances looking for the ideal spot. Barbel have home ranges up to fifteen miles. Many freshwater fish migrate much, much further. For migratory species, like Atlantic salmon and the European eel, access to the sea is essential. The Industrial Revolution has left us with a fragmented river. Weirs built to harness the power of water for mills, factories and for navigation, block the way. Fish trapped in their sections are vulnerable to pollution or predation. And species like Atlantic salmon trying to return to our cleaner rivers cannot reach spawning ground in the shallow headwaters.

Why Do We Need Them

Whilst trout and Atlantic salmon can sometimes be seen leaping up waterfalls, weirs present a unique challenge. They are often long and steep. Their surface is smooth with little variation in the flow of water. The deep pools found at the base of waterfalls which fish can leap from are replaced by shallow aprons of concrete and stone. Many coarse fish species cannot jump obstacles.
The Aire Rivers Trust works with partners such as the Environment Agency and landowners to overcome these obstacles. The ideal solution is weir removal which restores natural river habitat (returning the artificial ponded section upstream back to a more natural system). But in some locations this proves impossible. Weirs form part of the urban fabric of our landscape. Some are valued for their heritage or for their amenity value. Buildings are built close to them and complicate their removal.

How Do They Work

Yorkshire Water explains why we need them and how fish passes work

Mid construction footage of the new fish pass at Kirkstall Abbey Weir as part of our Developing the Natural Aire project

An explanation of how an eel pass works from a Canal and Rivers Trust project similar to our Developing the Natural Aire

Where weirs cannot be removed, the solution is engineering. Records show rough fishways built in France during the 1600s. Here bundles of branches were used to create steps in steep channels to bypass obstructions. Engineered fish pass design has come a long way since the first one was patented in 1837 in New Brunswick, Canada. All designs seek to make weirs passable to fish. The majority of modern fish passes on the River Aire are Larinier Passes. Metal baffles in the base of them slow the flow over the weir that fish can swim or leap through.

The reconnection of 60km of habitat in the River Aire by the Developing the Natural Aire project will allow the return of Atlantic salmon, sea trout and other migratory fish. Monitoring conducted alongside the project has recorded a brown trout travelling from Armley Mills to Cross Flatts in Bingley (and most likely beyond) in a huge 80-kilometre journey to search for new areas to feed, breed and shelter in. This journey would have been impossible before Developing the Natural Aire as weirs like Kirkstall Abbey were completely impassible to fish.

Better Becks

Plastic grows on trees

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 tree planting
On exposed sites tree guards help protect young saplings from the weather and grazing by deer or small mammals.

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.

Inevitably some tree guards by rivers will get washed away. Are they the wrong product because they are in the wrong place?

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?

River Worth Restoration