River Cocker natural flood management work takes shape

30th November 2020 - Derwent Catchment

A major natural flood management project aiming to benefit communities in Cockermouth and Lorton has made significant progress this year, despite the challenges of working during the pandemic.

We’re leading a three-year £818,000 catchment restoration project, comprising river restoration, habitat improvement work and the installation of natural flood management features throughout the River Cocker catchment area from Crummock Water to Cockermouth. We’re working with farmers and landowners to develop new landscape features inspired by nature.

Work has taken place at numerous farms and includes 29 leaky dams across becks to slow the flow of water from the fells after storms, four new ponds to temporarily store water, 5.5 km of fencing along becks to reduce grazing and encourage vegetation to slow the flow, and river restoration projects. Over 4,000 trees have been planted to create 6.7 hectares of woodland and 1.5 km of hedgerow. As well as absorbing and slowing water, trees on riverbanks provide shade that cools becks, providing better conditions for fish such as Atlantic salmon. Planting across slopes also connects habitats together and has the added benefit of providing shelter and shade for livestock.

One major project for the team has been restoring a floodplain on Blaze Beck at Whinlatter which had previously been disconnected from the beck. Newly-installed rapids will raise the water level along a 600-metre stretch of the beck, enabling it to spill out onto the floodplain during heavy rain. As well as providing temporary water storage after storms, the project will help reduce the amount of gravel that washes downstream and has in the past blocked the bridge at High Lorton.

As well as reconnecting the flood plain at Blaze Beck, 12 acres around the beck has been fenced off to exclude livestock and 1,000 trees have been planted. Two tributaries have been left unplanted to allow for natural regeneration of vegetation. Plants already re-appearing include orchids, heather and wild thyme.

To complement the Blaze Beck project and similarly benefit Lorton, the team plans further work in the Whinlatter area in the new year.

Annabelle Kennedy, Project Officer, said: “After a lot of planning it’s fantastic to see these features come to life across the whole river catchment. Natural flood management is about lots of small measures across a wide area adding up to make a difference to water flows.

“What’s really exciting is that this isn’t just a natural flood management project – we’re looking at the whole catchment and while a significant portion of the work is around flood mitigation, we’re also restoring rivers and habitats so it benefits wildlife as well as people, from freshwater species in our becks and rivers to the huge number of species supported by new woodland and hedgerows.

“I want to say a huge thank you to all the farmers and landowners in the River Cocker area who have really engaged with this project. The work takes place on their land and without their support we simply could not have achieved these successes.”

Another example of the changes to the landscape is at Hopebeck near Lorton, where an 85-metre stretch of beck which was previously culverted, running under a field, has been brought back to the surface and re-meandered to 180 metres in length. As well as helping to slow the flow by restoring the beck to its floodplain, this has significant wildlife benefits as it has opened up access to a further 415 metres of the beck for fish passage. A fish easement to aid passage has also been added downstream of this site, at a road culvert, to open up another 430 metres of habitat.

In addition to installing new landscape features, we’re working with farmers on improving soil condition. Soil becomes compacted over the long term and is then less able to absorb rainwater, increasing surface run-off. We have bought an aerator that farmers can borrow to break up the top layers of soil.

We’re also working with Lancaster University to monitor the effectiveness of natural flood management features installed as part of the project to contribute to the national evidence base on natural flood management.

Anna Hetterley, Natural Flood Management Advisor at the Environment Agency, said: “It’s great to see this project coming to life through Environment Agency and Defra funding. The project helps us to meet the ambitions set out in our Flood and Coastal Erosion Risk Management Strategy to use nature-based solutions and help create climate resilient places. Natural flood management has a key role in creating a better space for our communities and nature. We look forward to seeing the benefits this project will bring.”

The project is funded by DEFRA/the Environment Agency and the Water Environment Grant scheme through the European Agricultural Fund for Rural Development. West Cumbria Rivers Trust is working with partners including the Environment Agency, Cumbria County Council, Natural England, the National Trust, United Utilities, the Woodland Trust, Farmer Network, Cumbria Wildlife Trust, Friends of the Lake District, Derwent Owners Association, Cumbria Woodlands and local community groups.