With its natural beauty and thriving wildlife, it’s hard to believe that less than seven years ago Swindale Beck in the heart of the Lake District ran straight as a canal and its increased flow was removing the gravels where salmon and trout like to spawn, increasing flooding downstream, and reducing water quality.

Fast forward to 2023 and following a successful partnership led by United Utilities and the RSPB, Swindale Beck has been successfully re-meandered (had its natural bends restored). Here we look at how this was achieved and the benefits it has brought to Swindale and the nearby River Eden catchment.  

Having been straightened some 160 years ago, to make way for more farming land, and while the changes were logical back then, the natural environment had been negatively impacted for years, with the effects continuing to be felt into the present day.

In an effort to increase agricultural productivity, the peatland was drained, species-rich hay meadows were fertilised and native woodland was degraded in Swindale Valley.

The project to transform the Beck and the Valley began in 2016, undertaken by United Utilities with the support of the RSPB, The Environment Agency and Natural England to deliver a series of interventions that would restore the natural balance of the area.
The team reintroduced bends into the river, slowing the flow of water, improving the water quality and enhancing the natural landscape. Since then, further work has seen additional areas of floodplain reconnected, new wetlands created and further meanders restored.

Although the main focus was Swindale Beck itself, the project also involved restoring a large area of blanket bog towards the top of Swindale Valley, which has led to increased carbon storage. The increased carbon storage will, in turn, help combat climate change. By raising the water table, the water quality and habitat has improved for a range of wildlife.

The Westmorland Gazette: The newly improved meadows provide all-important nectar for bees and butterflies, further encouraging new wildlife to flourish alongside Swindale Beck.The newly improved meadows provide all-important nectar for bees and butterflies, further encouraging new wildlife to flourish alongside Swindale Beck. (Image: United Utilities)

Furthermore, the project saw many thousands of new trees planted within the valley in an effort to increase carbon stores, reduce the risk of flooding downstream and slow the flow of surface water. Although the trees are still growing, the surrounding wildlife is already benefiting from the shade, structure and sustenance they bring. As they mature, their roots will start to stabilise the soil and prevent erosion, while also becoming a safe home for red squirrels and a whole host of birds and insects.

While the restoration team were working to re-meander the river, they caught fish from the old, straightened river to ensure that they were safely rehomed in the new, restored part of the Beck. Soon after the work was complete, nature took over, with deep pools, fast running shallows and other areas of clean gravel formed.

These were all missing from the straightened channel, and thanks to the re-meandering of Swindale Beck, wild salmon, brown trout and many other kinds of wildlife are now able to successfully breed and thrive. In fact, salmon laid eggs in the gravel of the restored river just a few short months after the work was completed, for the first time in nearly 200 years.

During high rainfall, the Beck can now spill over into the floodplain meadows, helping to slow the flow of water through the valley and improving natural flooding regime. With the artificial embankments removed, the flood water can quickly get back into the Beck after heavy rainfall.

There have also been changes to grazing which mean that the colourful meadows host a rich variety of plants such as melancholy thistle, eye bright, wood cranesbill, ragged robin, marsh marigold and many others.

The newly improved meadows provide all-important nectar for bees and butterflies, further encouraging new wildlife to flourish alongside the re-meandered Swindale Beck.

But the work doesn’t stop there; Swindale Beck is a key part of the Haweswater drinking water catchment, and now has a newly improved water intake just downstream of the restored section of the river. This state of the art structure incorporates a new fish pass and is designed to help protect the river downstream, which eventually flows into the river Eden.

The award-winning project in Swindale shows that by working together, it is possible to change how land is looked after to provide benefits for both wildlife and people. Slowing the flow of water reduces the risk of downstream flooding, improves raw drinking water quality, protects wildlife, and makes the landscape a more beautiful place to work in and to visit. It has won both the UK River Prize 2022 and is one of 100 projects around Cumbria that won the prestigious European River Prize in 2022.

United Utilities hopes that its combined efforts with the RSPB, The Environment Agency and Natural England will inspire the community of Cumbria to seek opportunities for similar, natural approaches and opportunities to improve the surrounding area.

Meanwhile, United Utilities look forward to continuing to contribute to landscape scale restorations that benefit everyone within the community.