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A living river: back to the future

Friday 29 October 2010

Our countryside commentator John Sheard, a life-long lover of Britain’s waterways reviews plans to restore one of the Yorkshire Dales’ most important rivers which will take it back to the past to ensure a healthy future

ONE of the stranger things about mankind’s relationships with our rivers is that on one hand we love to live by them, walk by them, fish in them or just sit by them and gaze in tranquil splendour – and on the other hand, we have this need to change them to fit in with our human ways.

Over the centuries, we have dammed them, diverted them, dredged them and polluted them. Very few lowland rivers would now be recognisable to the people who lived on their banks two or three centuries ago – or two millennia ago, before the Romans canalised many East Coast Rivers to make way for navigation.

Those that have changed the least are probably the rushing, crystal clear streams and becks of the upland Yorkshire Dales and similar countryside - but even that can be misleading for the modern eye. The upper reaches of the River Wharfe, now picture postcard favourites, were in the 17th and 18th Centuries lined with water mills which prospered until the Age of Steam.

Most signs of that long-gone industrialisation on upland rivers are now visible only to the eye of a trained archaeologist. The danger spots now, when it comes to conserving our important rivers, are at the point when they emerge from the hills and run into the valleys below. And there, many of them are in desperate need of some TLC – tender, loving care.

Such a case is the River Ribble, the biggest and most important river flowing west from the Yorkshire Dales National Park. When it heads into the flood plains south west of Settle, it is in serious trouble, according to landscape scientists employed by the Environment Agency and it partner, Natural England.

It so happens that I have a long personal relationship with this river. Twenty years ago, I worked in a converted mill on its banks in Preston at a key time of change. Until then, for previous two centuries or so, Preston had busy docks and flourishing heavy industry, And the dear old Ribble was on its deathbed from associated pollution.

At the time of my brief stay, that industry was dying and the docks were closing down, a source of grief for local workers. The silver living to this black cloud was the fact that the river was cleansing itself and I was able to research a magazine article trumpeting the return of the salmon in large numbers.

And one of the few thriving plants is the invasive Japanese knotweed.

That improvement in the lower reaches has been maintained ever since. Except, say the scientists, for that important five-mile stretch south west of Settle in the vast flood plain overlooked from the busy A65 north from Long Preston.

There, man has been doing his “improvement work” for centuries, largely to rescue thousands of acres from once near marsh to good farmland. The river has been dredged and high flood banks built to make things better but, as happened so often in the past, they have only made things worse.

This is a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) which should be home to important wading birds, plants and trees. Instead, its banks are largely denuded of vegetation – where they have not subsided into the river, that is. And one of the few thriving plants is the invasive Japanese knotweed.

Its once clear waters flowing over a gravelled bed are now in deep channels, the gravel covered in thick layers of silt. This destroys beds where trout once spawned and gives the whole river a dull, tired, brown complexion – not the features desired in an area of prime landscape importance.

Because of its importance as an SSSI, a team funded by Natural England has been working all this summer to draw up a blue print for the River Ribble Restoration Plan. It has been seeking the input of local landowners, anglers and other interested parties and is expecting to publish a draft plan in the next few weeks.

More details can be read at here

It so happens that, three years ago, I acquired permission to fish a long stretch of this site. I have been there only once because, quite frankly, it was too deep, too dank and too boring to attract a game angler. It seems this lack of attraction has also affected the local wildlife. Let’s hope that this restoration plan escapes the coming budget cuts to put a sparkle back into the scenery.

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