Whinlatter Forest project aims to help slow floodwaters

24th February 2021 - Derwent Catchment

Work has started on a natural flood management project at Whinlatter Forest which aims to help slow the flow of water towards Lorton and the River Cocker.

In partnership with Forestry England and the Environment Agency, we’re installing over 200 leaky dams in Aiken Beck, Whinlatter Gill and various tributaries and forest ditches. Made from logs and tree trunks from Whinlatter Forest itself, the dams will hold back water when beck levels are high during storms then drain gradually afterwards, reducing peak river levels downstream.

In the summer, embankments will be removed from the sides of Whinlatter Gill to restore the natural floodplain and keep water in the area for longer after storms.

The work is taking place in areas away from the Whinlatter Forest Visitor Centre and there will not be any trail closures.

Annabelle Kennedy, Project Officer, said: “This work is an important part of our River Cocker natural flood management and catchment restoration project. We’re looking at river catchments as a whole and planning huge numbers of improvements across wide areas that will work together to make a real difference.

“In the area above Lorton, these new features at Whinlatter complement last year’s work at Blaze Beck, just downstream of Whinlatter Forest, where we installed new rapids along a 650-metre stretch to raise the water level and encourage the beck to use its floodplain again. Slowing the flow in this area should reduce the amount of gravel washed down towards High Lorton which clogs the beck and causes flooding. This project alone won’t fully resolve that problem, but it should help.

“The new features also provide a range of wildlife habitat benefits. Installing wood in watercourses provides more diverse habitat, and reconnecting floodplains improves our wetland habitats.

“Natural flood management is being taken seriously nationally, with projects happening in flood-prone areas nationwide using natural solutions to complement hard flood defences.”

Gareth Browning, Area Forester (Ennerdale and Thornthwaite) at Forestry England, said: “Living in Cockermouth I’m well aware of the impacts of flooding and keen to help through my work in the Cocker and Derwent catchments. As managers of Whinlatter forest, Forestry England is keen to see the nation’s forests play their part in reducing flood risk.

“It’s great to see tree stems and branches from our forests being used as natural materials in these structures, and we’re looking at how we can help further by providing willow to weave into the dams so they become living structures.

“The leaky dams, willow weaving and tree planting we are planning in partnership with the Rivers Trust will restore more natural riparian habitats which will benefit wildlife as well as contributing to the wider work to reduce flood risk. As these trees grow and the dams merge into the landscape the area will become more interesting for visitors and wildlife.”

Derek Poate, Lorton resident and Melbreak Communities group member, said: “Lorton suffered flooding in 2005, 2009 and 2015, and as a community we’ve been working with West Cumbria Rivers Trust and the Environment Agency on future river management. A significant part of that was looking at natural ways of managing the becks and coping with runoff.

“It takes a lot of natural flood management features across a whole catchment to make a difference downstream and it’s great to see the various works in our area taking shape. We’re also really pleased that these features bring additional environmental benefits, with habitat improvements benefiting flora and fauna.”

Stewart Mounsey, Environment Agency Flood Risk Manager for Cumbria, said: “This work is part of a national Defra funded £15 million Natural Flood Management project, with £2.5 million being spent to reduce flooding across Cumbria.

“The Whinlatter project is a great example of how natural flood management can be used to slow and store water away from communities at risk of flooding. By working with natural processes and methods in appropriate areas we can help reduce flooding for vulnerable communities, as well as improving biodiversity and river health. We look forward to the completion of these works and the benefits it will bring.”

We’re working with Forestry England and the Environment Agency elsewhere, too. Ten large woody debris features, similar to leaky dams, have been installed at Forestry England’s site at Matterdale. This work is part of the River Glenderamackin natural flood management project which aims to slow the flow of water towards Keswick.

We’re also working with Lancaster University to measure how effectively natural flood management features slow floodwater. This data will contribute to the national evidence base that will inform how natural flood management measures should be used as part of the country’s flood defence strategy.

The River Cocker natural flood management and catchment restoration project is funded by the DEFRA Natural Flood Management Fund and the Water Environment Grant scheme through the European Agricultural Fund for Rural Development. Other project partners include Cumbria County Council, Natural England, United Utilities, the Woodland Trust, the Farmer Network, Cumbria Wildlife Trust, Derwent Owners Association, Melbreak Communities and Cumbria Woodlands.