“Nature needs chaos, it needs randomness,” says RSPB’s Lee Schofield.
It sits on the bank of Swindale Beck, a stretch of river that flows into Haweswater Reservoir in Cumbria, one of England’s largest lakes. Chaos – and nature – has returned to this site after disappearing for two centuries.
This is because, some 200 years ago, the community of Swindale embarked on an ambitious straightening project for this stretch of the stream, with the aim of speeding the flow of water through the valley and increasing the amount of surrounding farmland.
This had unintended consequences. The faster flowing water was too fast for spawning fish such as salmon and trout. And the river carried more sediment downstream, making it more turbid.
Then, in 2016, the RSPB and its partners, including the land-owning water company, undertook a remeandering or ‘rewiggling’ project.
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After surveying the valley to locate the original route carved out by the river, the charity enlisted a team of excavators to recreate that winding channel. It is now about 180 m (200 yd) longer than the straight line that had been on the valley floor for two centuries.
The transformation, Lee says, was almost immediate.
“About three months after the diggers left, we had salmon and trout spawning in the river again,” he recalls.
The re-established meandering curves have slowed the flow of water, which creates an aquatic habitat at every bend.
“We now have vegetation in the river where the young fish can shelter,” Lee explained. “There are gravel banks, deep pools and riffles – shallow, turbulent parts of the river where the water draws in oxygen. All of this benefits the whole food chain.
“It’s like a living thing moving across the valley now, while the old straightened river was just like a sad canal.”
This restoration was expensive. Funded equally by the RSPB, the Environment Agency, Natural England and the water company’s landowner, United Utilities, it cost just over £200,000 to redevelop the 1 km (0.6 mile) stretch.
The government is currently funding a number of conservation schemes like this under what is called the Landscape Recovery Scheme. This way, farmers will be able to apply for money to increase biodiversity on their land, possibly by churning their own rivers or creating wilder spaces like woodlands.
But Alice Groom, sustainable land use policy officer at the RSPB, says more funding is needed if the decline of nature in this country is to be tackled.
“Last year’s Landscape Recovery pilot was vastly oversubscribed,” he says. “The government should move quickly to bring enough funding online to meet the demand of those groups of farmers and landowners who want to secure nature, climate and water quality.”
For United Utilities, re-wiggling essentially means the river cleans itself. Artificially straightened rivers flow faster and collect more sediment. In this case, it is carried downstream to Haweswater Reservoir. The bends slow down the flow and allow the river to deposit its sediments on the banks.
That slowed flow also reduces the risk of flooding downstream.
Somewhat ironically, future environmental damage caused by water companies could also provide a source of funding for restoration projects like this one.
Businesses could soon face unlimited fines for dumping wastewater, according to recently announced government plans. Environment Secretary Thérèse Coffey said this money would be reinvested in a new water restoration fund and used for community-led river conservation projects.
It was recently revealed that United Utilities itself was releasing raw sewage into rivers more often than any other water company in England in 2022.
United Utilites’ John Gorst, who worked on the Swindale project, told BBC News: “There are problems and we are addressing them.
“[But] this panorama is fundamental for us as a company. The reservoir is our single largest supply, so we’re investing in these reservoirs and managing them in a way that preserves water quality and has all these added benefits for biodiversity.”
The RSPB run their own farm in this valley and say they have demonstrated that conservation and agriculture can work together and be mutually beneficial.
Lee Schofield says seeing the clear, curving water of the river — and its wildlife — return is inspiring.
“We as a species can rebuild and restore places like this. We can create space for nature,” he says.