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RIVERWOODS: Restoring riparian woodlands

Just 35% of Scotland's rivers have any form of tree cover. At The European Nature Trust, we're working in partnership with the Kyle of Sutherland Fisheries Trust to restore woodlands on five rivers of the Kyle catchment, preserving salmon populations.

Scotland has lost 97 per cent of its native woodland over the centuries. Many river catchments that would have once been covered with rich woodlands of pine, willow, downy birch and alder have been deforested. Without the cooling shade that trees provide on riverbanks, many of Scotland’s rivers are now experiencing extremely high temperatures: which is reducing the survival rates of important species such as the Atlantic salmon, brown trout and critically endangered freshwater pearl mussels. 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.

The image to the left shows the Kyle catchment; red indicates a temperature record of above 26.3C. These rivers are some of the most vulnerable to thermal stress during climate change – that's bad news for fish. Atlantic salmon, a cold-adapted species, cannot grow and develop from juveniles to adults in temperatures above 23C. Likewise for trout, temperatures of 30C are lethal.

Here you can explore an arcGIS map of the Kyle catchment with temperature recordings.

Those there are problems for salmon at land and at sea, catches in the Highlands reached an all time low in 2022, representing just 75% of the five-year average. Salmon are an indicator species for the health of the entire freshwater ecosystems they inhabit. Not only that, they are a pillar of Highland culture and local employment. 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. The climate is changing, and through a history of deforestation and degradation, we've reduced the ability of freshwater ecosystems to adapt to this modern threat. We have to take steps to ensure the long-term viability of salmon populations, and that can begin with restoring our rivers.

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. We must restore riparian woodland to cool our waters and mitigate climate impact.

Today, Scotland has 108,000 km of rivers, of which just 35% have any substantial tree cover. 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.

Building richer freshwater environments

The European Nature Trust is committed to restoring freshwater ecosystems in the Scottish Highlands. Building on our collaborative riparian restoration work at Alladale Wilderness Reserve – where one million trees have been replanted along two Highland glens – we are now actively engaged in the replanting of riparian woodlands along the five main rivers of the Kyle catchment. This work will be conducted and managed by the Kyle of Sutherland Fisheries Trust, in collaboration with The Fishmongers’ Company.

In May 2022, The European Nature Trust hosted the London premiere of Riverwoods: An Untold Story. Produced by SCOTLAND: The Big Picture, the film cast a light on the perilous state of Scotland’s Atlantic salmon population, and how their decline after years of riparian deforestation signifies a need to restore healthy freshwater environments. You can discover more about the event here.

With proceeds from our ‘Riverwoods’ BFI event, we are directing funding support to the Kyle of Sutherland Fisheries Trust. We raised above £60,000 at BFI, and your support is now helping us to 'kickstart' riparian woodland projects at the catchment scale, using this and matched funding commitments as a seed from which to engage further financial backing from landowners and government grants.

Kyle Riverwoods: The first planting project!

Thanks to those who came to our BFI 'Riverwoods' event, with support from Mossy Earth, our partners at Kyle Fisheries, have just restored 6km of riverbanks along the rivers Tirry and Oykel. Replanted native trees are now revegetating the riverbanks and will eventually provide shade and critical nutrients for species like salmon and brown trout. But it’s just the beginning! Kyle Fisheries and TENT are working tirelessly on creating a pipeline of similar projects across the catchment.

Collaborating for our shared freshwater environment

We are working with collaborators who join us in a shared vision for catchment-scale restoration. In addition to our funding partnership with The Fishmongers' Co, this work is financially supported through corporate and individual partners. Many projects in the pipeline are able to calculated projected carbon sequestered over time, and we're monitoring improvements in biodiversity across all projects.

We are actively seeking partners who want to contribute to the tree-planting initiative. Together, we can make a tangible difference for the health of our shared freshwater environment – a public good, on which we all rely.

In the coming years, project stakeholders will be documenting the project and the biodiversity benefits of restoring riparian woodlands. Stay tuned!

About the Kyle of Sutherland Fisheries Trust

The Kyle of Sutherland Fisheries Trust is tasked with managing and improving the fishery and the riparian habitat within the catchment of the 5 rivers flowing into the Kyle of Sutherland. Their purpose is to support conservation initiatives and to advance public education.  This will benefit the freshwater fish resources and associated habitat of the region and to preserve for future generations a valuable part of Sutherland’s natural heritage.

About the Fishmongers' Company

The Fishmongers’ Company is one of the oldest and most ancient Livery Companies of the City of London, one of the ‘Great Twelve.’ For 700 years it has stood on the banks of the River Thames playing a leading role in upholding the standards in the trading of fish and shellfish. As part of their philanthropic work, the Fishmongers’ Company actively support projects designed to improve the quality of our shared freshwater resources.

About SCOTLAND: The Big Picture

SCOTLAND: The Big Picture is a rewilding charity working to open eyes to the value of landscape-scale restoration. Building on momentum of the Scottish Wildlife Trust’s Riverwoods campaign, SBP produced the documentary film ‘Riverwoods’, which tells the story of Scotland’s ecological decline and how we can come together to protect salmon and freshwater ecosystems.

Supported by

Partner With Us For Scotland's Rivers

Are you looking to make a positive contribution to nature through your business or as an individual? Do you own land that you'd like to see replanted with native trees?

Contact jacob@theeuropeannaturetrust.com to discuss ways to partner with TENT. 

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