Storm-damaged trees boost nature recovery in restored Aberdeenshire waterway


Efforts to build natural habitats and climate resilience during Easter Beltie Burn near Torphins continued this month when around 50 mature trees with their root plates were added to the stream.

In a £12,000 project, storm-damaged Arwen trees that originally grew in Scolty now form 15 large woody structures, which have been dug into the river bed to create habitats for wildlife and slow further water flow during periods of heavy rain.

The project, led by the Dee Catchment Partnership, brings together the Dee District Salmon Fishery Board, the Cairngorms National Park Authority and Forestry and Land Scotland in this ambitious project.

A freshwater ecologist at the James Hutton Institute and head of the Dee Catchment Partnership, Dr Susan Cooksley, said: ‘This is an exciting next phase in the Beltie Blight recovery, which we restored two years ago from an artificially straightened canal to a vibrant wetland. flowing in a meandering watercourse, to enhance the region’s biodiversity and resilience to flooding.

“Since then the site has had time to heal and grow naturally and its success has been recognized by the RSPB Nature of Scotland Awards.

“But even though the wetlands are thriving, the river channel is still less varied than we would like, in terms of different habitats for fish and invertebrates to use – the channel is also quite low and the works will cause the water levels.

“We know that nature and climate resilience work best when waterways are connected to their floodplains.”

Each consisting of three to six eight-meter-long trees and their substantial root plates, the 15 large woody structures were buried in the bank and stream bed of the lower meandering channel of the Beltie Fire and pinned securely with timber, in a practice which has been successfully pioneered in the upper Dee catchment by the Dee District Salmon Fishery Board in recent years.

The process is laborious and involves heavy machinery transporting the trees from their source to carefully chosen locations, selected to provide the greatest habitat benefits.

The Dee District Salmon Fishery Board’s director of river operations, Edwin Third, led the design and installation of the large wooded structures in the Beltie and coordinated the addition of almost 150 such structures to the rivers of the upper watershed in recent years.

He said: “These rivers once flowed through a forested landscape, and riparian trees would have been a vital part of the habitat structure, providing shade, shelter and food – as well as pools and beds. of gravel as they fall into the river, where aquatic species can hide from predators.

“Today these must be some of the rarest habitats in Scotland and with Atlantic salmon in crisis we urgently need to get them back.

“Salmon have a very complex life cycle, requiring different types of habitats at different stages.

“By adding large woody structures to the river, we can help create these complex and diverse habitats for them, but we also support all native wildlife, by interrupting and trapping vegetation and stimulating aquatic insects, creating feeding platforms for birds like divers, and the kind of tangled, protective structures that otters love – the benefits are many.

“Salmon will navigate these structures over the next few weeks as they travel up the Beltie to spawn.”

Belt Burn.

Continuing, Susan said: “With the immediate availability of these storm-damaged trees, it was the obvious next step for the Beltie – to create a variety and complexity of habitats for nature, just as beavers do, and improve the connectivity between the river and its floodplain by raising the water level.

“It also gave us the opportunity to hone our skills in creating these structures in more loamy, low-lying streams.

“We learned a lot from this work at Beltie and it will allow us to confidently approach other projects in the region.”

Funded by NatureScot’s Biodiversity Challenge Fund and designed by cbec eco engineering UK, the restored site has been closely monitored since work began in 2020 by Edwin, Susan and colleagues from the James Hutton Institute, River Dee Trust and Edinburgh Napier University, with a raft of measurements ranging from water levels to species surveys taken before and after each new development, allowing them to get an accurate picture of the benefits of their efforts.

As one of the first partnerships in the country to add large wooded structures to rivers, the team will continue to document the work to help develop similar techniques in river projects elsewhere in Scotland.

As environmental adviser for Forestry and Land Scotland, who donated the trees and funded their transport to the site, Philippa Murphy said: “It’s fantastic to see these trees being repurposed for nature in this way, and we were delighted to be involved in the project. .”

Although the restoration site does not fall within the boundaries of the Cairngorms National Park, the work has been funded by the Park Authority, who are keen to apply the lessons of Easter Beltie to the monitoring and design of their own activities in the national park planned for the next decade under the £55,000,000 Heritage Horizon project.

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