Re-Wiggling at RSPB Geltsdale Creates Re-Naturalisation

The RSPB and the North Pennines AONB Partnership have collaborated on an innovative project at RSPB Geltsdale to allow the Howgill Beck to work in its natural environment and create a flowing wetland system.

Capital works began on 4 August 2022 and were completed by 7 September. 
The project received £33,000 in funding from Northumbrian Water under the South Tyne Holistic Water Management Project. Defra’s Farming in Protected Landscapes programme, which is administered in this area by the North Pennines AONB Partnership, contributed £21,442. Other funding came from the Fellfoot Forward Landscape Partnership Scheme (LPS), £16,000, and the RSPB, £16,066.

Farming in Protected Landscapes is a Defra programme which funds projects within protected landscapes that benefit nature, climate, and people. Fellfoot Forward LPS is a major project funded by The National Lottery Heritage Fund to conserve, enhance, and celebrate the natural and cultural heritage of a special part of the North-West of England.

Howgill Beck Howgill Beck new sinuous channel

Howgill Beck flows through RSPB Geltsdale and is within the Geltsdale & Glendue Fells Site of Special Scientific Interest, the North Pennine Moors Special Area of Conservation & Special Protection Area, and is part of the North Pennines Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. The beck originates three kilometres upstream of Stagsike on Cold Fell, running through Bruithwaite Forest, planted by RSPB Geltsdale, and Stagsike Meadow, an excellent area for breeding waders. A length of the beck was straightened to create a canal in the eighteenth century and lacked many of the natural features associated with this watercourse type. The beck now works alongside a permanent watercourse which can connect to its floodplain during flood events. Some of the water has been allowed to find its own path within the system, allowing a dynamic flowing wetland to develop, storing carbon, and creating more beneficial habitat for wildlife.

The site at Howgill Beck was an ideal location to deliver and demonstrate the benefits of restoring a natural watercourse and managing land for increased biodiversity on a sustainable working farm. Local farmers, Ian Bell and Rebecca Dickens, are farming the RSPB land at Tarnhouse with cattle and small numbers of sheep, to help create the ideal habitat for Curlew, Black Grouse, Lapwing, Redshank, Snipe, and many other species of wildlife. They produce quality sustainable food in balance with nature, running a viable business alongside protecting and enhancing the land for nature recovery, habitat creation, and biodiversity.

Howgill Beck after work Howgill Beck after work
(c) George-Heritage-Dynamic-Rivers

Working with project designer, George Heritage from Dynamic Rivers, and on-site contractors Gary and Ian Cannon, the original channel has been heavily modified and is now very different from the previous straightened and managed watercourse running between high banks. New, wiggling channels have been cut, creating a braided river with a longer stream bed. The project created much-needed variety within the new channels by adding pools and riffles, which reduced the energy within the channel and meant that any sediment will not be flushed straight down the watercourse as it did previously. The features and slower flow have already allowed some fine gravels to accumulate, creating places for fish to spawn in future.

Jen Selvidge, RSPB Geltsdale Warden and Project Manager of the Howgill Re-naturalisation Project, said: ‘’It has been immensely satisfying to see the reversal of an embanked, highly managed, and straight system. The energy in the channel has been reduced, holding flood water on site for longer, so finer gravels and sediment can be deposited, creating more beneficial habitat for a whole suite of species. We are already seeing high numbers of Snipe feeding within the project area.”

Catchment Team Leader at Northumbrian Water, Susan Mackirdy, said: “We’re really happy to be supporting this in conjunction with our South Tyne Holistic Water Management Project, which aims to improve the health and resilience of our rivers. It is also a great example of the type of work we support through our Bluespaces scheme, which sees us going above and beyond our regulatory requirements when it comes to improving public access to good quality water environments.”.

Fiona Knox, the North Pennines AONB Partnership’s scheme manager for the Fellfoot Forward Landscape Partnership Scheme, said, “It has been great to be part of this project from the start and to now see the beck make a natural route through the landscape and spill out into the surrounding fields. The new habitat created will be valuable for the wading birds on the reserve, and the plant and animal communities that support them.”

North Pennines AONB

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