One of the wettest places in England has almost completely dry rivers and dangerous conditions for wildlife

12th June 2023 - General Catchment

West Cumbria Rivers Trust and the National Trust warn about impact on wildlife from drought conditions

Whilst many have been enjoying the current prolonged dry spell of weather in Cumbria, two conservation charities are warning that conditions in the Borrowdale valley – famously England’s reputed wettest location – are in serious prolonged drought conditions. For the third year in a row The River Derwent which flows through the Borrowdale valley has dried up almost completely. Ruth Mackay, Fisheries Project Officer from West Cumbria Rivers Trust warned of “disastrous conditions for wildlife across West Cumbrian rivers”.

Often watercourses like the River Derwent dry up when there is little rain fall due to being perched or modified from their natural course. Times of drought highlight the need to ensure watercourses are resilient to extreme weather conditions which are occurring more frequently as a result of climate change. Returning rivers to a more natural state can help make them act less like drains and hold on to more water, which also has benefits in times of extreme rainfall, slowing the flow downstream.

Ruth Mackay, WCRT’s Fisheries Project Officer, said:

“We have images being sent in from around the valley of the rivers and tributaries bone dry. Already our nature is under stress. If a drought impacts a river, there is usually chance to recover in the succeeding years, but when it happens year after year, it becomes catastrophic for the wildlife that depend on it.”

In the last few years, The National Trust and West Cumbria River’s Trust have been undertaking award-winning river restoration work as part of the Cumbria River Restoration strategy to help mitigate the effects of climate change in the Derwent Catchment. The National Trust’s Riverland project has been delivering on several sites in the county. Stonethwaite had embankments removed and flood plains restored to help keep water in the land and at Dunthwaite, ponds were created and black poplars, an important wetland species that has all but disappeared from Cumbria, were successfully introduced. As part of the Great North Bog project, the third phase of the Armboth peat bog restoration will be starting this autumn to help the land hold more water, supply water to rivers in times of drought and continue to capture carbon. The hard work is paying off as these three sites are proving resilient to the recent droughts and keeping water in the ground for livestock and wildlife. Both organisations hope to continue working on these and new sites throughout Cumbria to help mitigate drought events like the one we are now witnessing. 

Becky Powell from the National Trust says: “The Riverlands project has been working hard to deliver strategies which increase the resilience of our environment and communities to climate change. We have delivered projects across the Lake District, including in Ullswater where Goldrill Beck used to run dry, but is now still flowing despite the dry conditions. This not only helps the river and all the plants and wildlife which rely on it, but it also provides sustainable drinking water for livestock. Storing water in the landscape in this way not only makes it more resilient to drought and wildfire, but to flooding also.”

West Cumbria Rivers Trust and the National Trust work in partnership alongside other landowners and tenant farmers to improve the health of our rivers for people and wildlife. Everyone can play their part by reviewing and reducing their water consumption, being highly vigilant about fire risk when in the valley and reporting any sightings of distressed or stranded wildlife, particularly fish, to the Environment Agency Incident Hotline on 0800 80 70 60.

To help spread the word about the importance of healthy river systems, the Keswick Museum, in partnership with the Riverlands project and West Cumbria Rivers Trust, will be presenting an interactive exhibition starting 5 August, 2023.

To download images please click here (click on the link & images to download with instructions are located just above the title)

Image credits: West Cumbria Rivers Trust