Swindale Beck RRC Member Site Visit

Guest blog: Ann Skinner, RRC Board

12 members attended a fascinating site visit in brilliant sunshine on Wednesday 7th December 2022 to learn about Swindale Beck river and floodplain restoration project, led by Lee Schofield (RSPB project leader) and John (United Utilities, UU). Winner of the UK River Prize (project scale award) in 2022 and part of the Cumbrian River Restoration programme (which recently won the European River Prize), this is now a popular, high profile demonstration site.

160 years ago, farmers from the 11 dwellings in the valley worked together to modify the river and floodplain by hand, with the aim of maximising agricultural productivity on fairly marginal land. The beck was relocated to one side of the floodplain - straightened, deepened and embanked, divorced from its floodplain and regularly dredged. Peatlands were drained, the hay meadows grazed intensively and native woodland degraded, leading to significant water quality problems – mostly dissolved organic carbon and colour, but also traces of various chemicals.

A water supply scheme constructed in the 1950s takes water from Swindale Beck to supplement Haweswater reservoir, which supplies 2 million people. Up to 400 megalitres/day is licensed, with hands-off-flows operating when the reservoir is full or river flows are low during a drought. The intensive land management practised in the past by tenants in the Swindale valley led to significant problems with turbidity, DOC and (surprisingly) glyphosate and MCPA – roughly 1 tonne/ha/year has to be removed, at great expense. Swindale is a critical component of the Haweswater drinking water catchment, so UU were very keen to stop the problems at source.

The Swindale Beck project started in 2010 as a partnership between United Utilities (who own 10,000 ha in the catchment), the RSPB (who manage it on a 45 year agreement), Natural England (the floodplain hay meadows are a designated site, as is the river Eden downstream) and the Environment Agency. The success of the SCaMP project partnership enabled RSPB to build good working relationships with UU and they successfully took over the farming tenancies in the Naddle and Swindale valleys 11 years ago.

The aim was to deliver a range of interventions to benefit water quality and wildlife, reduce downstream flood risk and enhance the natural landscape. Taking an integrated approach to river and floodplain restoration meant that many benefits could be achieved, including the maintenance of sustainable productive agriculture without the use of chemicals. A further vital component was to better understand the economics of upland hill farming to determine whether land management practices could improve water quality, wildlife and carbon sequestration whilst reducing flood risk and remaining economically viable. Thereby demonstrating to others the need to respect the

carrying capacity of the land, and that positive environmental improvements could go hand in hand with a productive farmed landscape.

The work was carried out in phases, some concentrating on assisted natural recovery, other phases more tightly designed, with meander restoration to encourage variable flows and sediment deposition and transportation, creating riffles, pools and gravel bars. Good geomorphological data was vital, as were digital elevation models and aerial photographs showing the location of paleo-channels. Ephemeral scrapes and pools were created in the floodplain in low lying areas of low diversity. Boulders from the old flood embankment were used to split the flow down the old and new channels. Just two days after connecting the new meandering channel, the area was hit by a major storm, which flushed any fine sediment through rapidly and assisted river features to form.