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RIVERWOODS: Restoring riparian woodlands

Healthy, thriving freshwater ecosystems are essential to preserve biodiversity. Yet in Scotland, all is not well: a legacy of deforestation on riverbanks has begun to swirl with rising average temperatures, imperilling salmon and all the biodiversity that our rivers sustain. We must get trees back on riverbanks as the starting point for freshwater ecosystem restoration. At The European Nature Trust, we're pleased to announce our support for the Kyle of Sutherland Fisheries Trust in their efforts to restore woodlands on five rivers of the Kyle catchment.

Scotland has lost 97 per cent of its native woodland over the centuries, impairing ecosystem function and reducing biodiversity. Without the cooling shade that trees provide on riverbanks, many of Scotland’s rivers experience extremely high temperatures, reducing the survival rates of important species such as the Atlantic salmon and brown trout. Today, many of Scotland’s rivers run through bare, treeless glens, reflecting the ecological decline that we have come to accept as normal.

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. In 2018, 70% of Scotland's rivers experienced temperatures which cause thermal stress in juvenile salmon.

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.

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 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 begins with the restoration of 'ecosystem functioning'.

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 woodland benefits not only salmon but many other species of plants and animals, providing habitat, while drawing in and sequestering carbon from the atmosphere. Additionally, as riparian woodland has been lost, so too has the natural buffer for outflowing water; restoring that woodland would help to restore the flow of water out of rivers and 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.

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.

Joining us in our mission, The Fishmongers’ Company (Fisheries Charitable Trust) have engaged with TENT as a funding partner to extend the reach of the project, allowing us to get more trees back along riverbanks.

"We are extremely excited and proud to be engaged in this path-finder partnership with TENT and the Kyle of Sutherland Fisheries Trust in North-East Scotland. The restoration of Scotland's upland riparian habitats has taken on a new urgency and this project will allow us not only to build resilience into our fragile Highland catchments but also to test innovative new ideas to restore habitats and protect species. We hope, in time, these will be scaled up and applied in other parts of Scotland".

Andrew Wallace - Director Fishmongers' Company Fisheries Charitable Trust


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 with bolt-on funding from the WaterBear Network – an environmental and humanitarian film streaming platform.

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.


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