Andrew Griffiths travels to Duffield to find out how salmon and other migratory fish can once again reach their historic spawning grounds thanks to a project led by the Wild Trout Trust.
We had just closed the Duffield-Wirksworth road to a small lane. A sign at the top warned us that it was for light traffic, pedestrians and bicycles only. That sounded promising.
I was looking for a nice view of the River Ecclesbourne, a small stream that rises in Wirksworth, flows down its valley and joins the River Derwent at Duffield.
We were standing on the first bridge we crossed – it would be either the river or a heritage railway line where ancient trains follow the water through the beautiful Ecclesburn Valley.
Leaning over the old stone bridge, I felt a pleasant cool breeze on this hot summer day, followed by the tingly anticipation that only the air around the river can create.
Peeking through the canopy of trees, my eyes adjusting to this suddenly dark world, I found the shadowy waters of Ecclesburn.
Here, above Duffield, it is only a small stream that flows through the valley. In the relative coolness of the shade, these gravels between the rocks should provide the perfect breeding ground for trout and salmon, which increasingly return to the River Derwent in the autumn to spawn, and the later fry and small fish to breed. the first few years of their lives before they begin their distant settlements at sea.
But for many years there have been no salmon or other migratory fish here, as the floodgates have been firmly shut by a large, concrete dam built near the mouth of the river in Duffield in the 1970s.
In the summer of 2022, everything changed. The project, run by river conservation charity Wild Trout Trust and funded by the Environment Agency, has removed the hook and made it temporary for fishing again, so once again migratory fish can set off from the Derwent on their long journeys from the sea. and to the calm waters of Ecclesbourne to breed.
Connectivity in rivers is vital to a healthy ecosystem and is a major barrier to the free flow of much of the water and sediment that supplies our rivers, often now defunct and a legacy of the industrial past.
Incredibly, only one percent of rivers in England, Scotland and Wales are free of man-made barriers.
They present a “brick wall” to fish trying to navigate river systems. Without free access during their natural migrations, access to the water they can use for spawning, feeding, and weather extremes such as drought and flooding is severely limited. This can affect the entire fish community in both the short and long term.
Drum removal helps all fish species and all river life, not just salmon, which is why the Wild Trout Trust wants to take the lead on so many drum removal projects.
Logistics can be difficult; For example, the removal of this hedge in Snake Lane, Duffield, Ecclesburn, was planned for three years.
Wild Trout Trust project manager Dr Tim Jacklin explains: “This Ecclesbourne project builds on the very hard work being done to re-open our rivers to migratory fish.”
“On the River Derwent, fish passages constructed at Borrowash and Darley Abbey in 2012-13 have enabled salmon to reach the river upstream of Derby and breed successfully.
Salmon, which have traveled all the way back from their ocean-feeding grounds off the coast of Greenland, now enter the Ecclesburn River and swim from Duffield; Opening Snake Lane Dam will give them access to another 10 km of spawning and juvenile habitat.’
While it is always preferable to remove the water tank completely and restore the river as close to its natural state as possible, it is not always an option. Local flood risk at the Snake Lane site determined that a rock ramp fish passage was constructed rather than completely demolished.
‘Rock Descent’ is a 120m long series of stone-strewn steps down the river.
“This will allow the free movement of all the fish species that exist in the river and are currently blocked by the dam,” says Dr. Tim Jacklin.
“There will be better connected habitats for breeding, feeding and sheltering from flooding and drought conditions. This means a more abundant and sustainable fish community, which benefits the many other species that rely on them.’
Studies carried out before the work began show the extent to which the dam interfered with the life of the river. For example, 16 species of fish were recorded below the grass, but only eight above.
Now consider the other animals that depend in some way on the eight species that have disappeared, and you begin to get an idea of how the river can affect life both in and around the river.
“Opening the Ecclesbourne River to all fish, including Atlantic salmon, will transform the river and its ecosystem,” says Dr Ryan Taylor, Derwent catchment co-ordinator at project partner Environment Agency.
“Currently there is only 40km of available habitat for Atlantic salmon in the Derbyshire Derwent, this project will open up a further 10km of habitat, so it is clear that it will have an immediate and significant impact.
“The Wild Trout Trust’s work in developing and delivering this project has been fantastic and the support from the local community has been exceptional.”
What began life as an engineering project in mid-summer soon turned into an exercise in community outreach and education as well as overcoming a concrete obstacle.
Project partner Derbyshire Wildlife Trust visits schools in the area, explaining the work and talking to children about the incredible life cycle of salmon and how removing the sticks will also help other fish species.
Helen Campbell of local nature technology company ACE Nature Ltd. designed to photograph the work from start to finish.
This will provide a valuable record of the work itself and help demonstrate how dam removal has changed the life of the river over time.
When I visited in the summer, Ryan Taylor of the Environment Agency was in deep conversation with little Elio Pedroni, who had come from Italy to visit his aunt in Duffield. Ryan was explaining where the water in the river went, that it was being drained while the work was being done.
‘We were playing Pooh sticks by the bridge!’ his mother Catherine explains. When they next visit in November, the water should be back and Elio should be able to play his game again.
Tim Jacklin of The Wild Trout Trust enjoys the educational aspect of the project. He told me that for the first time he realized its importance.
“We were standing on the bridge and a mother walked by with three young children and they were looking over the fence as they dug behind the fork,” he said.
Helen said, “Do you know why they do that?” and the little girl immediately returned: “Yes, so that the fish can swim upstream, a special person came to our school and told us all about it!” I thought it was brilliant,” says Tim.
But there are also doubters.
People stopped and said, “What are you doing here?” Why are you doing like that? There are no salmon here!” Tim explains.
But then one of the project participants shows them a photo of a juvenile salmon found there during a fish survey, and their suspicions are piqued.
“It’s changing people’s perception of tea,” concludes Tim with some satisfaction.
The benefits of removing forks from the teapot are cumulative, but the mantra is: “one fork at a time.”
There is another at Ecclesbourne, on land now owned by the Chatsworth Estate, as far as Wirksworth, which intercepts salmon. Next on the list to restore nature in the Ecclesburn Valley.
You can see a periodic record of the entire project, photographed and documented by ACE Nature, on the Wild Trout Trust website: wildtrout.org/content/river-ecclesbourne-snake-lane-fish-pass