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Young of Year trout (hatched later winter/early spring) in Jonny Grey’s hands, in Snaizeholme

‘YOY’ trout breeds hope for nature recovery

Wednesday 19 June, 2024, by Prof Jonathan Grey

It was but three months old and an inch long. 

Yet this ‘young of year’ brown trout was found in a syke only a foot wide, right at the head of Snaizeholme.

It always amazes me that mum and dad trout are able to get to this far up the river system.  

It’s a reminder that there are grounds for hope that wildlife populations in the Yorkshire Dales, much depleted, do persist and can bounce back. 

I am a member of the Yorkshire Dales Biodiversity Forum, which in September 2023 published a Nature Recovery Plan for the Yorkshire Dales National Park.

One of the targets in the plan is to carry out works along 1,000km of river to protect or enhance the ecological condition.

On 24 May I made a start on one river:  Snaizeholme Beck.   It’s where the Woodland Trust is carrying out nature recovery at scale across a mosaic of varying habitats, notably including one of England’s largest native woodland creation projects, about four miles west of the town of Hawes.

Assisted by volunteers Nick, Chris and Andy, I electro-fished 19 sections of Snaizeholme Beck and its tributaries to assess the ‘health’ of the current fish community – a baseline survey. 

Remember Ghost Busters?  I looked a bit like that, with a beeping backpack and long metal wand.  The wand sends an electric current through the water, momentarily stunning any fish present; there were wild brown trout, bullhead, minnows, stone loach and white clawed crayfish.  We netted the fish, counted and measured them, and put them back unharmed.

Chris, Jonny and Nick study the catch by Snaizeholme Beck

The results were revealing.  In the sections where the beck had been modified, there were hardly any fish.   Back in the day even a remote valley such as Snaizeholme was wholly agricultural, with about a dozen farms; long sections of the beck were straightened and then shackled by bankside rock armour and dykes.   It was done so that flood water would flash quickly down and out of the valley, protecting field boundaries and meadowland.   Over time the becksides have become completely devoid of trees, meaning there is no cover or shade for the fish in the beck, and a lot of erosion. Not good for cold-adapted species with the hotter, drier summers we’ve experienced of late.

Now there is an opportunity to help nature recovery in this hidden dale. 

Most of us see water travelling through the landscape and probably don’t think about what it should actually look like without the touch of human hand.  To me I immediately see wrong bits:  the straightened bits, the bits where boundaries have been put up against it, the bits where the beck has been cut so deep it cannot access  its floodplain. 

Here in Snaizeholme one of the things we’re going to try to do is to give the river the option of moving back into its former channels.  We will allow the beck to recover as naturally as possible, but we are also going to nudge it in the right direction by taking the historic shackles off.  Where the edges of the beck have been rock-armoured, we are going to return the stone to the channel and allow the beck to flow more naturally.  If we get the physics right, then the biology will follow.

This will make better habitat not only for trout and crayfish but also for the smaller invertebrates like shrimp and sedges which feed a lot of birds.  It’ll be bendier, wigglier – and longer – channel, so that water will take more time to flow out of the dale and that should help alleviate flooding downstream.

We are also taking some wind-blown trees from a nearby plantation and redistributing them throughout the channel and across the floodplains of the valley floor. This will make the water work harder to get round the tree trunks and provide cover for the fish.

We’re going to scatter the trunks about to recreate what would have been here in the past, when there was more woodland. And, of course, the tree planting that the Woodland Trust is doing will help to keep the water cool and eventually provide the wood which our waterways need.

I’d hope to see a lot more trout soon.  Where I have done this sort of work before on other becks in the Yorkshire Dales, we’re getting ten times the number of trout only two to three years after starting.  Build it and they will come!

Picture of Prof Jonathan Grey

Prof Jonathan Grey

Jonathan Grey is Lancaster University Professor in Practice with the Wild Trout Trust. He is a member of the Yorkshire Dales Biodiversity Forum, which produced the Nature Recovery Plan.

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