“We started out by asking what does the river want,” says George Heritage. “We needed to understand the river. As managed as it was – as much as the river had changed – the clues lie all around us in the landscape.”
We – Heritage, National Trust Riverlands project manager Rebecca Powell and I – are standing on a muddy hillock, gazing out across Goldrill Beck. Two years ago, it was a concrete-cased canal, forced parallel to the A592, bearing run-off from farms and roads into Cumbria’s lakes.
Now, it’s picturesque. Behind us, Helvellyn rises out of the clouds. Ahead, the stream forks across the floodplain, strewing shingle and silt. It vanishes into a woodland, then the gradient drops, creating tributaries that flow north to join Ullswater.
Ullswater is a typical Cumbria ribbon lake, formed as Ice Age glaciers retreated. It’s the second largest in the UK Lake District, the UNESCO World Heritage site and beauty spot that draws 16 million tourists a year to rugged northwest England.
But Cumbria is struggling with water pollution, flood risk and wildlife losses. Mismanaged watercourses have damaged protected Lake District sites, the National Trust says, contributing to “a severe decline in biodiversity”.
Heritage is a geomorphologist who helps consultancies, private landowners and local government to restore rivers and floodplains. When Cumbria River-Restoration Project decided to tackle Goldrill Beck, it called in Heritage – then at Aecom – to advise.
Most Lake District rivers became canals 300 years ago, encased to free land for grazing. But climate change is bringing volatile weather; heavier rainbursts and longer droughts. In 2015, Goldrill Beck and other streams that feed the River Eden burst during Storm Desmond, flooding Patterdale homes and farms and closing roads.
One way to manage climate extremes is to hold more water in the landscape. UK waterbodies are heavily managed. Most Lake District rivers became canals 300 years ago, encased to free land for grazing. But climate change is bringing heavier rain and longer droughts. Cumbria River-Restoration Project is working across the Lake District to build resilience to climate change, to restore habitats and improve water quality.
Partners the National Trust, Natural England, the Environment Agency, RSPB, Ullswater CIC, United Utilities and the Eden, West Cumbria and South Cumbria rivers trusts spotted a chance to hold water on Goldrill Beck’s floodplain, slowing flows downstream and creating new wildlife habitats.
“This very modified stretch of beck was efficient at moving water very quickly downstream.,” Powell recalls. “Communities downstream are vulnerable to flooding. It had been managed the same way for years, until hearts and minds began to change after Storm Desmond.”
Heritage used LIDAR data to model the catchment. The valley floor is farmland, grazing for sheep and cattle. That allows space for water. But not everyone agreed. The Storm Desmond affected many local people. Talk of freeing a river can sound the opposite of cutting flood risk.
The partners talked to farmers, local authorities and residents. The farmers worried about grazing and safety access. The partners built that in. Natural England worked with tenant farmers to tap new stewardship funding.
That cleared the way to unshackle the river. Work began in spring 2021, to remove culverts, drainage channels and embankments. The Environment Agency removed fish from the channel, then work started to divert the river. Bags of soil created a dam as teams removed the channels. Once river and sediments had settled, they opened the site downstream.
Goldrill Beck now flows lower on the floodplain, absorbing water that pours down from the hills and holding heavy rain.
Two years on, 1.6km of river has been restored. Goldrill Beck moves unfettered across its floodplain, supporting a 28,900 sq m wetland. Despite last summer’s drought and a dry winter, the 889m river has grown to 2.5km; its area has quadrupled to 28,740 sq m. Restoration has created 24,600 sq m of wet woodland, fed by seasonal water channels.
Hydrographic data suggests it takes two to three hours longer for peak flood flows to travel downstream. That buys more time to warn people and to react. In winter 2021/2022, the site held 1,800 cu m of sediment that would have rushed downstream in heavy rain.
There are horseshoe gravel bars, rarely seen in the Lake District. Plants and wildlife are bedding in. There are otters, dippers and wading birds. Riffles, rapids and pools create feeding and breeding grounds for insects and fish. Varied flow speeds and depths create diverse habitats.
Rangers have planted 16 black poplars, bringing the UK’s most endangered native tree back to Cumbria. Black poplars could stand up well to climate change. “They like to have wet feet,” says Heritage.
An osprey platform stands unclaimed among the saplings. Powell dreams that ospreys will return to Patterdale soon.
What can other catchments learn from this?
“Not all rivers conform to this style,” Heritage answers. “But the process? Definitely. We’ve all started to talk about rewiggling. Unfortunately the wriggle room for rewiggling is about ten years beyond where we are.
“This is about designing a watercourse in line with the processes operating there. Here, that means rewiggling and letting the river form an estimating, multi-thread channel. Because that’s what it should be.
“The National Trust is starting to use methods now that are a lot less interventionist – working to understand how to trigger new processes and features with minimal intervention. That’s really where gains are starting to happen.”
National Trust is a one of the UK’s largest landowners. Its Riverland scheme has invested £14 million in restoring rivers and catchments. Goldrill Beck cost £680,000. Funding came from the Trust and the European Union’s Agricultural Fund for Rural Development.
“Compare that to the hundreds of thousands, running into millions, it cost to maintain the river and that answers the cost-benefit question,” Powell says. “In terms of what we have here now for nature; I don’t like to put a cost to it. It’s just better.”
This summer, teams will gather soil samples to measure how much carbon the floodplain absorbs. They’ll send water samples for E-DNA testing, to find out what species live in the beck.
“We’ll build up a picture to show changes to carbon stored in the soil of this floodplain,” Powell says. “We’ll compare that to what’s stored in the soils around a modified river nearby. That should build up some figures about the carbon-storage potential of natural floodplains.”
Heritage sees the project as a sign of the times. “We modified our rivers 150 years ago,” he says. “We maintained them in that state thanks to grants. But in the last five to ten years there is less desire – nationally and across Europe – to maintain artificial river systems.
“You only have to look at rivers to see what they really want to do – how they really should behave. What we’ve done here is take guidance from that.”
Meanwhile, there’ll be more testing, more research and more gathering of evidence. What there won’t be is more river maintenance.
“We’ll do nothing,” Powell concludes. “The river will do as it pleases – for the rest of its life.”
Cumbria River-Restoration Project…
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