We’re leading a three-year £818,000 catchment restoration project, comprising river restoration, habitat improvement work and the installation of natural flood management features throughout the River Cocker catchment area from Crummock Water to Cockermouth.

We’re working with farmers and landowners across the catchment to develop landscape features inspired by nature that aim to help reduce flood risk to Cockermouth and Lorton, and provide other environmental benefits.

The issue: Flooding in Cockermouth and Lorton

Cockermouth has a long history of flooding, with devastating floods occurring in 2005, 2009 and most recently in 2015, when properties were directly flooded and many more affected by surface water flooding. Historic land use changes, agricultural drainage and compacted ground, together with an increase in extreme rainfall events, have contributed to a high flood risk for Cockermouth and Lorton.

The River Cocker flows from Crummock Water to Cockermouth, and includes the catchments of Buttermere, Crummock Water and Loweswater. It’s an upland river flowing 19km northwards from its source at the head of the Buttermere valley in the Northern Lake District fells. Its tributaries include Liza Beck, Whit Beck, Mill Beck and Dub Beck. The whole catchment covers an area of 145 km 2.

What we’re doing

We’re working with farmers and landowners across the Cocker catchment on a catchment restoration project which includes extensive natural flood management (NFM) work. NFM comprises a range of techniques designed to keep water in the landscape and out of rivers for longer during heavy rainfall, with the goal being to reduce flood risk downstream by ‘slowing the flow’.

We’re putting a range of measures in place, including:

  • tree planting
  • creating and restoring kested (banked) hedgerows
  • improving soil
  • installing leaky barriers
  • increasing water storage on the floodplains

These measures complement hard engineering and flood resilience measures carried out by other agencies and organisations. The combined impact of lots of small measures across the catchment could have a significant effect on flood risk. We’re keen that these measures don’t adversely affect the farm business and that they improve water quality and habitat.

Project progress

We’ve made huge progress despite the challenges of working during the pandemic. Work has taken place at numerous farms and as of April 2021 includes: 

  • 149 leaky dams across becks to slow the flow of water from the fells after storms
  • four new ponds to temporarily store water
  • digging 10 scrapes across pastures
  • 5.5 km of fencing along becks to reduce grazing and encourage vegetation to slow the flow, and river restoration projects
  • planting over 4,650 trees and hedging plants 
  • creating or restoring 6.7 hectares of woodland and 2.5 km of hedgerow
  • planting 40 in-field trees and protecting them with post-and-rail 

Some highlights are explored in more detail below, and work is continuing across the catchment.

Case study: Whinlatter Forest (above Lorton)

In partnership with Forestry England, 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 summer 2021, 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.

These new features complement last year’s work at Blaze Beck (see below), 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.

Case study: Blaze Beck (High Lorton area)

One key project completed in 2020 was the restoration of a floodplain on Blaze Beck.

Floodplains are important for storing water and gravels in high water and storm conditions. Over the years, the beck has been managed to encourage the water to flow through but the result has been storm water bypassing the floodplain. We’ve reconnected the beck with the floodplain by introducing rapids.

One of the new rapids

The rapids will raise water levels slightly over the 600m stretch of the beck. This encourages the beck to spill out into the floodplain, as well as flow through smaller adjacent channels. This should slow the flow of the beck as the floodplain will temporarily store water.

More importantly, gravels can now be deposited on the floodplain rather than washed down the system in a storm. As people in High Lorton will know, gravels accumulate at the bridge in the village, causing the beck to overtop, resulting in flooding of properties.

The rapids were designed by AquaUoS (environmental consultancy), with extensive modelling undertaken to refine the designs.

We’ll now be monitoring gravels in the beck, in partnership with the Environment Agency.

In the video below you can see the restored beck and the newly planted trees along the banks:

Check out our annotated images from this video (.pdf) which explain the changes in more detail. 

As you’ll have seen when you drive along Whinlatter Pass, we’ve also fenced and planted around Blaze Beck area, just below Swinside Cottages. This is not only to create woodland and scrub habitat (to better connect native woodland amongst the conifer plantations) but also to capture surface water that comes down the surrounding hills. We’ve planted about 1,000 trees and are leaving the rest to regenerate naturally.

Woodland along becks is fabulous for birds, and we’ve also seen the flowering plants thrive since the cattle were fenced out – orchids, wild thyme, heath bedstraw, self-heal, heather, bilberry, harebell, tormentil and bird’s foot trefoil. These are in flower at different times through the spring and summer, providing a valuable source of nectar for insects. 

Case study: Hopebeck (Lorton area)

An 85-metre stretch of beck which was previously culverted, running under a field, has been brought back to the surface and re-meandered to 180 metres in length. As well as helping to slow the flow by restoring the beck to its floodplain, this has significant wildlife benefits as it has opened up access to a further 415 metres of the beck for fish passage. A fish easement to aid passage has also been added downstream of this site, at a road culvert, to open up another 430 metres of habitat.

This video shows the newly restored beck:

News stories

Evaluating success

We want to know how effective these measures will be as a key aim of the DEFRA funding is to increase the national evidence base and better understand the role of NFM in flood risk management. We’ll be monitoring all our interventions, working with Lancaster University.

Funders and partners

The project is funded by:

  • DEFRA and the Water Environment Grant scheme through the European Agricultural Fund for Rural Development
  • The government’s Green Recovery Challenge Fund. The fund is being delivered by The National Lottery Heritage Fund in partnership with Natural England and the Environment Agency.

Work in this catchment was prioritised by West Cumbria Catchment Partnership to address multiple issues. We’re working with many of our catchment partners including the Environment Agency, Cumbria County Council, Natural England, United Utilities, the Woodland Trust, Farmer Network, Cumbria Wildlife Trust, Cumbria Woodlands, Forestry England, Friends of the Lake District and Melbreak Communities.

Want to find out more?

We’re continuing to identify and develop NFM interventions across the catchment which have multiple benefits. If you’re a landowner in the catchment and are interested in NFM measures on your land or are just keen to find out more, please contact Annabelle Kennedy on 07947 221 054 or  annabelle@westcumbriariverstrust.org