Riverwoods: Restoring the Kyle Catchment

Scottish salmon are under threat

Scotland's rivers are getting hotter. Without action, wild Scottish salmon could soon become a distant memory. By restoring native tree cover on riverbanks as part of a catchment-based approach to restoring our rivers, we can cool the water, store more carbon, boost biodiversity, and provide the rich conditions that our salmon need. 

 The European Nature Trust is committed to restoring freshwater ecosystems in the Scottish Highlands. Building on riparian restoration work conducted at Alladale Wilderness Reserve – where one million trees have been replanted along two Highland glens – we are now working with the Kyle of Sutherland Fisheries Trust to replant riparian woodlands along the five main rivers of the Kyle catchment. 

The Kyle riverwoods Project

Under climate change, Scotland is facing the very real possibility of a local extinction of Atlantic salmon. 

Catches in the Scottish Highlands reached an all time low in 2022, representing just 75% of the five-year average. During the mid-1980s, there were between eight and ten million salmon swimming around Scotland’s Atlantic coast; that number has now dropped to two to three million. During the extreme summer of 2018 – the warmest on record for Scotland – 70% of Scotland’s rivers experienced temperatures above the critical threshold for thermal stress in juvenile Atlantic salmon. And temperatures are going to rise: The UK Met Office predicts that summers like that of 2018 could occur every other year by 2050. Temperature modelling undertaken as part of the Scottish River Temperature Monitoring Network (SRTMN) has identified that waters across Scotland, particularly in the uplands, are now at high risk. 

Our riverbanks have been stripped of trees.

Part of the problem is that there are very few trees on Scotland’s riverbanks to shade the water. In fact, Scotland has lost 97% of its native woodland. Many river catchments that would have once been covered with rich woodlands of pine, willow, downy birch and alder have been stripped, leaving the riverbanks bare and exposed. Without the cooling shade that trees provide on riverbanks, these hugely important river catchments are experiencing thermal stress. Today, that is already reducing the survival rates of commercially and culturally important species such as the Atlantic salmon, brown trout, and critically endangered freshwater pearl mussels. Further, according to the Native Woodland Survey of Scotland, more than 60% of our remaining native woodland habitat is significantly impacted by herbivores, preventing natural regeneration.  

Restoring riverbanks can protect salmon, store carbon, boost biodiversity, and benefit local communities.

A logical starting point is the restoration of woodland on riverbanks – an intervention that has been proven to keep water courses cool during hot summers, boost freshwater biodiversity and benefit salmon survival. Restoring riparian woodlands will provide critical nursery grounds for young salmon; the tree cover will shade the water, cooling the temperature to improve salmon survival rates; while the revegetation of the riverbanks will help to restore natural hydrological flows, providing sorely needed habitat and resources for invertebrates, birds and mammals. Carbon will be drawn in from the atmosphere as the trees grow. Additionally, restoring riparian woodland will help to naturalise the flow of water out from rivers and the drainage back into them, mitigating flood risk.

Why the Kyle catchment? 
Today, there are 86 full time job roles on the Kyle river catchment related to salmon. If salmon disappear as our climate warms, the loss of these jobs would double the unemployment rate across the Kyle catchment. Native woodland remains on under 20% of the Kyle of Sutherland area, with most headwater rivers featuring less than 5% native riverbank woodland cover. 

Native woodland cover on the Kyle rivers (KSFT analysis):
The Cassley – 6% 
The Shin – 4%
The Evelix – 19%
The Carron – 8% 
The Oykel – 5%

Alladale Wilderness Reserve – where one million native trees have been replanted along the two glens, which flow from the Carron river – sits in the center of the Kyle catchment. It is a glistening example of what can be achieved with ambitious plans to improve the condition of habitats and restore healthy, functioning nature.

focus areas

Native tree planting and revegetation on riverbanks as part of catchment-based approach
Restoring woodland on more than 200km of riverbank across 5 key rivers of the Kyle catchment
Creating a network of woodland creation projects, reaching catchment-scale

"No one animal lives in isolation. It's a deeply interconnected web"

Duncan Pepper
Kyle salmon ecologist

How our project works

The team at Kyle of Sutherland Fisheries Trust are busy building a ‘pipeline’ of investment ready woodland creation projects across five rivers of the Kyle catchment (Cassley, Shin, Carron, Evelix and Oykel). This work is guided by temperature modelling, which has pinpointed more than 200km of high priority riverbanks to restore. 

 TENT, KSFT and our partners then work together to build funding partnerships that blend government and private grants, helping to scale-up and connect woodland creation projects. We work with trusted partners who share our vision, to support with the costs of tree planting and the protection of replanted native trees, where government grants currently fall short. As trees grow over the years, they will begin to provide shade and cool the river system for salmon and freshwater pearl mussels; their leaf fall will enter the river system, enriching the food web and increasing the productivity of the ecosystem; as their roots establish, they will provide cryptic surfaces that can protect juvenile salmon from predators; all the while, this will help to slow and naturalise the flow of the river, mitigating flood risk, while storing carbon in the system.

Here, you can explore a map of the Kyle catchment, which shows the stretches of river that Kyle Fisheries have already been restoring in the first year of the project.  
explore KYLE restoration work

Illustration by Phil Mumby.

Restoring our rivers

To ensure that the Kyle rivers still have salmon as climate change intensifies, we should take a
catchment-based approach to restoration, working together to improve their health.

  • Woodland shades rivers in hot summers. This helps salmon grow and develop, along with brown trout and critically endangered freshwater pearl mussels.
  • As roots extend into the riverbank and woody material drops into the river, trees provide places where young salmon can hide from predators.
  • The trees help to create variation in the riverbank vegetation and slow erosion, helping to restore the natural flow of the river while allowing it to twist and turn.
  • Trees provide habitat and food for invertebrates, which leads to a cascade of biodiversity, supporting birdlife, mammals, even the salmon. 
  • Carbon is drawn in from the atmosphere as the trees grow and as soil condition in the riverbank improves. 
  • Flood risk is reduced on a reforested catchment; trees slow the flow of rainwater from the upland areas into the river, slowing the flow and reducing the impact of extreme weather events.
  • The improvement in salmon numbers supports a sustainable fishery, enjoyed by local people and visitors from across the world.

In Partnership

We are immensely grateful for all support that we receive – our ambition for the Kyle rivers restoration is huge; we cannot do it by ourselves, nor rely on government support. Kyle Riverwoods is supported by an array of partners. We often explore opportunities to help partners make a positive, tangible impact for nature.

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