The plans to restore the River Dove

Caption to follow

Caption to follow - Credit: Archant

There is a plan underway to restore the River Dove. An iconic river so rich in history and tradition – what could possibly have gone wrong? Andrew Griffiths investigates

One of the small, step weirs on the river

One of the small, step weirs on the river - Credit: Archant

Walk along the River Dove on a summer’s day and with a pinch of luck with the weather, you may be forgiven for thinking that you had taken a wrong turn somewhere and inadvertently entered paradise. The section of the river running from Beresford Dale near Hartington down to the stepping stones at Dovedale is one of the most famous stretches of river in England and has been a popular tourist attraction since the 1700s.

The reason for its popularity is easy to see. First, time and geology have conspired to produce the spectacular rock formations of caves and towers and spires for which these dales are justly world renowned. They proved to be an irresistible attraction to those early travelling literary luminaries such as Byron and Wordsworth, and these rock formations rising out of wooded valley sides with the river running at their base must be some of the most depicted scenes in the history of English art.

Combine this with the rolling green of the hills and the pastel-soft limestone landscape and you have something pretty near to a pastoral idyll. So, you may ask as you walk alongside the gently flowing waters of the iconic River Dove and beneath these towering limestone pillars, what could possibly go wrong?

The answer is plenty. There is trouble in paradise, it seems.

The famous Viators Bridge at Milldale  a packhorse bridge mentioned in The Compleat Angler

The famous Viators Bridge at Milldale a packhorse bridge mentioned in The Compleat Angler - Credit: Archant

The fact is that the River Dove, idyllic an English stream as it may at first sight seem, is failing to meet the standards set by its designation as a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and neither does it meet the European standards required for the quality of our inland waters. The river habitat – and so the quality of life in it – from insects to fishes to the birds that depend on them – is not good.

There is a River Dove restoration plan underway to tackle the underlying causes. As rivers do not flow in isolation through a landscape and are very much affected by the management of the land around them, the restoration of the river is a multi-agency plan involving formal bodies such as The Trent Rivers Trust, The Environment Agency, the National Trust, Natural England, the Peak National Park, and local farmers, landowners, and angling clubs.

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The biggest problem on the River Dove is the weirs, and the biggest problem with weirs is that they can look so darned pretty. This is unfortunate, because in terms of the health of a river, weirs are bad news. The reason they are such bad news is two-fold. First, they act as a barrier and prevent the movement of fish. This isn’t just big, ‘glamour’ fish such as salmon, but tiny fish too, which also require movement up and downstream during their life cycles. But perhaps most importantly, weirs prevent the movement of the river itself. Not just the water, but the substance that goes into making up what a river is. Julie Wozniczka, Senior Project Manager at the Trent Rivers Trust and manager of the Dove restoration project – aptly named ‘Letting the Dove flow’ – tells me why.

‘The science will tell you that removing a weir is a good thing because it gets the river functioning more naturally,’ Julie explains. ‘A river is not just a flow of water, it is also the flow of all that the water carries – the gravels, the sands, the stones and rocks – and if you have weirs, that is interrupted.

Angling has a long history on the River Dove. It was first made famous by Izaak Walton in The Compleat Angler, first...

Angling has a long history on the River Dove. It was first made famous by Izaak Walton in The Compleat Angler, first published 1653 - Credit: Archant

‘And so the weirs effectively mean you kind of “iron” the bottom of the river and make it flat,’ she continues. ‘But removing the weirs would get that sediment moving again. The benefit might not be instant – some of those things take a while to get moving again. It may take time for the river to scour out the pools and deep places, which it doesn’t have at the moment.’

There is something of a ‘war on weirs’ going on in river restoration circles. In a post-industrial age, these weirs are largely now a redundant legacy of an industrial past. It is often not feasible to physically remove them as the river has been so modified that they have become an integral part of the structure. But ‘notching’ the weir – essentially cutting a hole into it – will go some way towards getting the river flowing faster again and so flushing through the silt that has built up over the decades and that is so harmful to the ecology of the river.

And this build up of silt is damaging. It clogs up the gravels the fish need to successfully breed, and it prevents insects from completing their life cycles, too. This has a knock-on effect on life in and around the river, as one level in an ecosystem is so dependent on the success of another.

So if the science tells us that weirs are so bad, why don’t we just whip them out? The answer, it would seem, is because rivers are about more than the rivers themselves – they are about the people who make their lives alongside and with them, too.

Some of the footbridges are a tight squeeze!

Some of the footbridges are a tight squeeze! - Credit: Archant

‘A wise person once told me, always remember that it is not your river,’ says Julie. ‘So you have to work with various people whose river it is, and who have various legal and other responsibilities for it. They are never all going to totally agree. It is my job to find out all their points of view, and to find out what wriggle room there is in the middle.’

There are a staggering 177 weirs along a 10.5km length of the Dove, from Beresford down to the stepping stones at Dovedale. And they are not all as ancient as they might at first sight appear. While there was some industry on the Dove in the form of mills, the vast majority of these weirs were built in the 1920s and 30s by fishing clubs, so they could stock bigger trout for the anglers to catch.

The sport of angling is inextricably linked to the River Dove. Most famously it is where Charles Cotton entertained his friend and mentor Izaak Walton, who wrote one of the most popular books ever written in the English language, The Compleat Angler first published in 1653, which contains a section about fishing the Dove. The fishing house Cotton built in memory of his friend Walton still stands on private ground in Beresford Dale, beside the river.

So while the angling tradition may be long and distinguished on the river, the sport is as subject to the vagaries of fashion and progress as any other. Fly fishing is now in a transitional phase, where the trend is towards fishing for wild trout in natural looking rivers and then releasing them again – then stopping off for your dinner in the supermarket on the way home! There are of course very good environmental reasons for doing this.

So the job of removing these weirs, in these transitional times, is largely a diplomatic one. It is just a shame they look so darned pretty because people can get so attached to them.

‘It is not so much can we take the weirs away, but can we uncover the natural cascades and features that were there before,’ says Julie. Diplomatically.

This desire to take the river back to some natural state seems to inform the project. To this end they have sought the advice of Ros Westwood, Derbyshire Museums Manager, who has looked at how the river has been depicted by artists since the 1700s, and in particular at a photographic survey of the Dale carried out in the 1920s.

Thomas Smith was a Derbyshire artist working in the 18th century who painted scenes of Dovedale.

‘Smith of Derby tends to show himself in his pictures as the angler,’ says Ros, who happens to be a keen salmon fisher herself. ‘I always joke that the scale in a Derbyshire picture is always the angler. You can’t find a picture without a fisherman and his rod.’

It is impossible to offer a definitive answer to how the river used to look, but there were clearly nowhere near as many weirs as exist today, but that is not to say there were no human modifications to the river – some do show signs of strategically placed boulders!

‘I would suggest that even 2,000-3,000 years ago, you would be managing a river to get some fish out of it,’ says Ros. ‘We modify the river to our needs, and now there is this complex balance between those people who only want a river for recreation, whether that is walking alongside it or canoeing down it, or those who want to use it for fishing.’

And it is those needs over time that change, whether it is the needs of the modern angler, of the million plus visitors who come to Dovedale each year to walk alongside the river or just enjoy the spectacular scenery, or the farmers grazing their livestock who depend on the river holding sufficient water to provide a physical barrier that prevents animals from straying.

It is easy to dismiss all those weirs put in by fishing clubs in the 1930s as being relatively modern and so unimportant. But Natalie Ward, Senior Conservation Archaeologist with the Peak District National Park Authority, is aware of the dangers of doing this.

While it is easy to see the value of preserving or recording a Roman fort, for instance, something as superficially trivial as a small weir such as those on the Dove can all too easily slip through the cultural net. But collectively, all these small artefacts of our recent past lives can add up to something significant.

‘Some things like weirs have been quite overlooked,’ says Natalie. ‘People are only just starting to appreciate that actually they have got some value and importance in understanding the way people have used the environment and used rivers and managed them for different purposes over time.

‘You don’t want to lose that part of the story and if you just take them out they have completely gone and we would lose that aspect of our heritage without it being recorded in any way.’

Natalie is involved with the river restoration project and is developing a methodology whereby volunteers will be able to record the important details of a weir that is to be removed or breached before it is lost for ever.

‘Even if there are very good environmental reasons for them to be breached, if we can record that they were there in the first place, what form they took, why they were there and their historical context, then we have preserved that for the future generations who manage that river for various different purposes,’ says Natalie.

‘It is all part of the story of people and their activity, how we have lived and how we have shaped our landscapes and left our footprint on it.’

The restoration of the Dove is about more than just removing a good number of those 177 weirs, although that is an important part of it. It is also about the land that borders the river, planting more trees and how that land is farmed.

As the river moves into its latest phase of human modification, I ask Julie, Project Manager, how she thinks the river will change. ‘There will be more natural collections of boulders that will not be aligned across the river,’ she says. ‘There will be more natural scour pools, more natural gravel beaches, naturally cascading and babbling water. And we would like to see more wood in the river, both in terms of living trees and dead wood. What you won’t have are these long, still patches.’

But ever the diplomat, Julie does acknowledge that this isn’t all going to happen overnight, and the plan is to introduce the changes gradually, taking everybody’s sensitivities into account.

‘We do know that the science tells us that without these weirs the river would function more naturally, but we need to earn a hearing for that and to demonstrate the case as we go along,’ she concludes.