What's going on in river restoration in England?

Guest blog: Glenn Mass, Judy England & Toni Scarr, Environment Agency

Catchment-scale restoration: working with nature from soil to sea

The government's 25 year plans for improving the condition of our water environments are hugely ambitious. Yet efforts to restore 75% of England’s rivers, their catchments and coasts to a state of 'close to natural' are responding to that challenge. A greater focus on catchment-scale actions that encourage natural processes to work from soil to sea is critical to this success. Supported by our Water Leaders – representing key partners and stakeholders across the country – the Environment Agency and Natural England are working to embed these principles into our strategies and programmes of restoration. With new and existing partnerships, we are focusing on restoration that has a nature-led approach right at its heart.

A growing evidence base

Our strategies and actions are informed by the best available evidence. The Environment Agency and Natural England are collaborating with the other organisations as part of the River Restoration and Biodiversity Programme seeking best practice in restoration appraisal to understand the effectiveness of measures. Other additions to the evidence base include:

Please contact Judy England for further information

Natural recovery: let nature do the work

We know nature can be powerful. It can move entire rivers and transport tonnes of sediment. Importantly it can restore lost processes, recover modified landscapes and habitats, and generate natural resilience. Nature can do this all by itself, and if we give it time and space it can work for us. With care, and alongside other interventions, a planned approach that lets nature do the work can underpin many restoration plans.

Below is an example of just how well nature can work for us. Re-forming lost dynamism and physical landforms within a section of the River Caldew in Cumbria. These changes occurred over a sixteen year period, after high flows and restored a previously modified channel (straightened). It’s clear from the photos that as recovery progressed, natural channel and marginal features and habitats developed. The most recent phase of recovery led to channel re-meandering and extensive gravel bar development, creating good habitat and natural sinks for sediment with potential channel conveyance benefits downstream.    

River Caldew, Cumbria: Nature doing the work (images © Ordnance Survey / © Environment Agency)


2000: modified channel with very few natural features.

2010: natural recovery initiated following high flows.


2015: continued recovery as features are encouraged to develop.

2016: river meanders and gravel features formed as river recovers.


The sort of natural recovery – a welcome gesture from nature – can form part of planned restoration work. The River Till Restoration Strategy demonstrates the use of natural recovery particularly well.

The River Till and its main tributaries are of high conservation and ecological importance (130km of river SSSI and SAC designated). However, the physical state of the river channel is the principal reason the SSSI is in 'unfavourable condition'. Efforts are underway to assist natural recovery of the system across the catchment, with the goal of moving seven of the SSSI units to favourable condition. Implementation is currently managed as a three–way partnership between Tweed Forum, the Environment Agency and Natural England.

One element of this implementation phase includes the River Glen Restoration Project. The river is a high energy system that has seen changes in its course (avulsions) and floodplain evolution (see photo to the right). Previously constrained by historical physical modification, between 2008 and 2016 a mile long reach of the river in the Lanton area experienced 3 full river avulsions caused by the combination of large floods and floodbank failures. In each case the river was “returned” to its original course and the floodbanks rebuilt, but these measures didn’t prevent the rapid morphological changes kick started by these events. Since 2016, the river is rapidly moving towards a wandering planform, putting further pressure on the remaining defences and agricultural land. The partnership has worked with the 4 local Estates to develop a plan that will remove derelict floodbanks, thereby creating the space for further planform evolution, and floodplain re-connection. Elsewhere, existing floodbanks are being set back, a culvert will be removed and a road lowered to provide space for the river and floodwater, whilst providing greater resilience for the remaining local infrastructure and agricultural land. Work is currently underway, with funding from the Water Environment Grant (WEG) to deliver this programme of actions. These interventions will assist and further enable the natural recovery of this section of river.

Avulsion on the River Glen in 2008 (© Environment Agency)