Andrew Griffiths travels to Duffield and learns how, thanks to a project run by the Wild Trout Trust, salmon and other migrating fish will once again reach their historic breeding grounds
We had just left the Duffield-Wirksworth road to take a small lane. A sign at the top warned us it was for light traffic, walkers and bikes only. It sounded promising.
I was looking for a good view of the River Ecclesbourne, a small stream that originates at Wirksworth, flows through its valley and empties into the River Derwent at Duffield.
We parked on the first bridge we crossed – it would be either the river or the heritage railway line, where vintage trains follow the water along the beautiful valley of Ecclesbourne.
Leaning over the old stone bridge, I felt a pleasant breeze of cool air on this hot summer day, and then the tingle of anticipation that only the air around a river can produce.
Peering between the leaves of the canopy, my eyes adjusting to the suddenly darker world, I had found the dark waters of the Ecclesbourne.
Here above Duffield, flowing down the valley, it’s just a little stream. In the relative coolness of the shade, between the rocks, these gravels should provide an ideal breeding ground for trout and salmon which increasingly return to the River Derwent to spawn in the autumn, and for fry and salmon to resulting juveniles live out their first years of life before beginning their own distant sojourn at sea.
But there have been no salmon here, or other migratory fish, for many years, because the gate to this creek has been firmly closed by a large concrete weir built in the 1970s near the mouth. of the river at Duffield.
In the summer of 2022, everything changed. In a project led by the river’s conservation charity, the Wild Trout Trust and funded by the Environment Agency, the weir has been removed and made passable for fishing again, so a once again migrating fish on their long journey from the sea can make their way from the Derwent. and in the calm waters of the Ecclesbourne to breed.
The connectivity of rivers is of vital importance for a healthy ecosystem and the many weirs that feed our rivers, often now extinct and the legacy of an industrial past, are a major obstacle to this free flow of water and sediments.
Incredibly, only one percent of the rivers in England, Scotland and Wales are free from artificial barriers.
Weirs present a “brick wall” for fish trying to navigate the river systems. Without free access during their natural migrations, access to water that they can use for spawning, feeding and avoiding extreme weather conditions such as droughts and floods, is severely restricted. This can affect the whole fish community in the short and long term.
Weir removal helps all fish species and therefore all life in the river, not just salmon, which is why the Wild Trout Trust is keen to take the lead in so many weir removal projects.
The logistics, however, can be daunting; this weir removal on the Ecclesbourne, at Snake Lane in Duffield, took three years of planning, for example.
“This Ecclesbourne project builds on the hard work that has taken place to reopen our rivers to migrating fish,” says Wild Trout Trust project director Dr Tim Jacklin.
“On the River Derwent, fish passes built in 2012-2013 at Borrowash and Darley Abbey have allowed salmon to reach the river above Derby and spawn successfully.
“Salmon returning from their ocean feeding grounds off Greenland are now entering the Ecclesbourne River and swimming across Duffield; the opening of the Snake Lane spillway will give them access to an additional 10 km of spawning and juvenile habitat.
While it’s always best to completely remove a weir and restore a river as close to its natural state as possible, it’s not always an option. At the Snake Lane site, the local flood hazard determined that a rock ramp fishway was constructed rather than completely removed.
The ‘rock ramp’ is a series of descending steps strewn with boulders over a 120m length of the river.
“This will allow the free flow of all fish species in the river that are currently blocked by the weir,” says Dr Tim Jacklin.
“There will be better connected habitats for breeding, foraging, and refuge from floods and drought. This means a more abundant and resilient fish community, with positive spinoffs for many other species that depend on it.
The studies carried out before the start of the work show how much the weir interferes with the life of the river. For example, there were 16 fish species recorded below the weir, but only eight above.
Now think about the other animals that depend in some way on these missing eight species and you’ll begin to get an idea of how a weir 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 Coordinator for the Environment Agency, a project partner .
“Currently Derbyshire Derwent only has 40km of habitat available for Atlantic salmon, this project will open up a further 10km of habitat so it is clear that it will have an immediate and significant impact.”
“The work of the Wild Trout Trust in developing and delivering this project has been fantastic and the support from the local community has been outstanding.”
What began as a mid-summer engineering project quickly became as much an exercise in community outreach and education as the removal of the concrete barrier itself.
Project partner Derbyshire Wildlife Trust visited schools in the area, explaining the work and teaching children about the amazing life cycle of salmon, and how removing the dam will also help other fish species.
Helen Campbell of local nature technology company ACE Nature Ltd. was recruited to photographically record the progress of the work from start to finish.
This will provide a valuable record of the works themselves and over time will help demonstrate how the removal of the weir changed the life of the river itself.
When I visited this summer, Ryan Taylor from the Environment Agency was deep in conversation with little Elio Pedroni, who had traveled from Italy to visit his aunt in Duffield. Ryan was explaining where the water had gone from the river, which had been drained during the works.
“We used to play Pooh sticks off the bridge!” explains his mother, Catherine. 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 appreciates the educational aspect of the project. He told me about the first time he recognized its importance too.
“We were standing on the bridge and a mom walked by with three little kids and they were watching through the fence as they dug out the back of the spillway,” he tells me.
‘Helen said “Do you know why they do that?” and the little girl came right back with “Yes, it’s so the fish can swim upstream, a special person came to our school and told us all about it!” I thought that was awesome,” says Tim.
But there are also the skeptics to deal with.
“People stopped and said, ‘What are you doing here? Why do you do that? There is no salmon here! reveals Tim.
But then someone on the project shows them a photograph of a juvenile salmon found there during the fish survey and their skepticism gives way to surprise.
“It changes people’s perception of the river,” concludes Tim, with some satisfaction.
The benefits of removing weirs from a river are cumulative but the mantra is: “one weir at a time”.
On the Ecclesbourne there is currently one more which prevents salmon from reaching Wirksworth, a weir on land belonging to the Chatsworth estate. He is next on the list to restore nature to the Ecclesbourne Valley.
You can see the time-lapse recording of the entire project photographed and documented by ACE Nature on the Wild Trout Trust website at: wildtrout.org/content/river-ecclesbourne-snake-lane-fish-pass