Rotherham River Revitalised

The final piece in the jigsaw of a 20 year vision to enable salmon to return to the River Don has been completed. People passing by Forge Island in Rotherham will now be able to see the Masbrough Weir fish pass, thanks to a partnership between Don Catchment Rivers Trust, Canal & River Trust, the Environment Agency, Yorkshire Water and Rotherham Metropolitan Borough Council.

The completed fish and eel pass at Masbrough Weir, Rotherham

For the first time in 200 years salmon will have a fully joined up river so that they can get to their first available spawning grounds in the centre of Sheffield. Speaking about the project, Anthony Downing, Environment Agency catchment coordinator for the Don and Rother, said:

“It is very exciting that this month we will see the completion of the fish pass at Forge Island. With Sheffield City Council also finishing the fish pass on Sanderson’s weir, this will open the entire migratory route from the North Sea to spawning grounds upstream of Sheffield.

“The work to open up the route has been a great partnership effort involving many organisations to enable fish passage at 18 previously unpassable weirs and hopefully we will now see a sustainable salmon population in the river Don after an absence of around 200 years. Not only will salmon benefit from the fish passes but many can be used by other species increasing connectivity and benefiting other wildlife in the river corridor.”

It was in the early 1990s that there were reports of salmon being caught in the lower Don around Doncaster, which was a strong sign that more life was returning to the river. These sightings of salmon set the wheels in motion for organisations to start talking about how to enable them to return to spawning habitat in the Pennines.

The removal of Crimpsall sluice in Doncaster, and water quality improving on the river Don gave the inspiration for organisations to work together on a vision to enable salmon to get back up to spawning grounds in the upper catchment for the first time in 200 years. Masbrough weir is 18th major obstruction that has been made passable, allowing salmon to move freely up and down the river. Dr Ben Gillespie, Technical specialist (river resilience) at Yorkshire Water said:

“At Yorkshire Water we are invested in improving and maintaining the environment around us. We are proud to be partners in this ground-breaking project, returning migrating fish back to their spawning grounds for the first time in 200 years is an incredible achievement.”

Together, the project member organisations raised the funding in time for construction at Masbrough to be completed ahead of the upcoming Forge Island development work. Not only will the fish pass help wildlife, but the river will now be a prominent feature that people will be able to see and enjoy as part of the new leisure quarter. Speaking about the benefits of the project, Stuart Moodie, Heritage and Environment Manager for Canal & River Trust, Yorkshire and North East, said:

“Canal and River Trust are delighted to be part of this project. The Trust recognises the importance of improving the environment of the River Don for all of its wildlife, particularly migratory salmon, and also for the human communities that enjoy the river. This project is vital to promote the health of the river and the wellbeing of people spending time next to its waters”.

Despite losing five weeks to the weather at the beginning of the year, Bailey Contracts Ltd in conjunction with Visio Management, have persevered through deluges of rain, high waters and the lock down, to complete the works on time and on budget. Councillor Denise Lelliott, Cabinet Member for Jobs & the Local Economy, said:

“I’d like to thank workers on the site who have carried out the work on the project through tough winter conditions and the implementation of the Coronavirus lockdown period. The project is an exciting one that we are proud to be part of. It’s another important step in the regeneration of the town centre which includes improvements to the river, three new town centre housing developments and the leisure development at Forge Island. I’m sure the fish pass will prove to be an attraction for visitors and residents in the area for years to come.”

Although construction is now complete, this is not the end of the project. Once social distancing rules allow, there will be a community event to celebrate the opening of the fish pass, and a story telling and animation project for local school children in conjunction with Grimm and Co.

Speaking about the project, Rachel Walker, project manager at Don Catchment Rivers Trust said:

“I can’t imagine a tougher set of circumstances for building a fish pass, but we’re there now, and we are very proud that the River Don is coming back to life.  If there is one thing we have learnt during the lock down, it’s that people need access to the natural environment for their wellbeing. Now, we’ve put the pieces in place for the people of Rotherham to enjoy their river. We look forward to celebrating this with you, and communities all along the Don, as soon as we can!”

Archaeological works for Masbrough Weir fish pass

As part of the works to create a fish pass at Masbrough Weir in Rotherham, an archaeological watching brief was carried out. Here, ArcHeritage tells us about some of the things they found out …

Recent works on the River Don were undertaken on Masbrough Weir at Rotherham to install a larinier fish pass. As the weir is an historic structure, the works were monitored by an archaeologist from ArcHeritage, part of the York Archaeological Trust. Working on a structure submerged within the river offers many challenges. The principal contractor, Bailey Construction Ltd, installed a coffer dam to divert the river around the works area, though the extremely wet weather in February meant that it was not possible to completely prevent water incursion.

View southwest across the weir prior to the fish pass works. Photo by ArcHeritage

The date of the weir is uncertain, though it is first documented in 1722 on a plan of the proposed River Don Navigation. The weir fed water to Rotherham Town Mill, a corn mill that stood on the eastern bank of the river. A mill is likely to have been in this location from the medieval period onwards, and it is possible that the original weir was also medieval. The weir may have been rebuilt along with reconstruction of the Town Mill in 1753. The southwest end of the weir abuts Forge Island, which was created by the construction of the Don Navigation canal. The name comes from the iron forge built by Walker and Co., who leased the island from 1754. The forge was powered by water diverted from the Don, and Walkers’ lease included an annual payment towards maintenance of the weir. Water power was still being used to drive a helve hammer at the iron works in 1858, though steam power was also used at that date. It is likely that water power was no longer used by the late 19th century, and the town mill was demolished between 1888 and 1901. The weir may no longer have had a significant function by that date, but was retained and appears to have been modified on at least one occasion in the 20th century.

Ordnance Survey town plan, published 1888, showing the weir with Forge Island to the left and the town mill above right.

Observation during the cutting of a 50cm deep channel for the fish pass through the southwest end of the weir revealed a core of earth and stone rubble, including some sandstone blocks that may have derived from an earlier structure. This was stabilised by a timber frame of three horizontal cross-beams held in place by upright stakes driven through the core into the riverbed. The upper face of the horizontal beams had been cut to give a sloping profile and they were joined by lap beams reinforced with an iron bolt drilled through the joint. The uprights had pointed ends reinforced with iron ‘shoes’, and were connected to the cross-beams with mortise and tenon joints. An upper surface of sandstone blocks was laid over the core and frame, placed tightly together with no evidence for any type of bonding. The blocks varied from 30cm to 1m in length and were mostly around 25cm wide and 30cm thick. No dating evidence was recovered from the weir, and the timber working methods could have been used at any point from the post-medieval period to the 19th century.

Schematic cross-section through Masbrough Weir. Illustration by Arran Johnson

This was the fifth fish pass installation on the Don to be monitored by ArcHeritage, which has allowed a greater understanding of the typical methods used to construct weirs in the Sheffield and Rotherham area. The earth and rubble core, timber frame and stone surfacing recorded at Masbrough Weir are common to three of the other weirs, though the form and choice of surfacing material may have been influenced by what was cheaply available. For example, at Sanderson’s Weir, Brightside, the surfacing included steel-making waste (crozzle) between larger sandstone ribs, this material being freely available to the steel manufacturers constructing the weir. A fourth weir had a supporting structure of stone rather than timber. Direct dating of these weirs was not possible, but all were extant by the 18th century and at least two had been rebuilt in the early 19th century.

Detail of timber joints used within the weir. Illustration by Arran Johnson

The Salmon’s Tale: The Lower Don

Join us for the next part of the Salmon’s Tale! In this blogging series by DCRT trustee Chris Firth, follow Salmo the salmon smolt as he travels from the River Don’s headwaters to the low, meandering reaches of the river. Can you guess which species he meets along the wayfrom the descriptions (answers at the bottom)?

Salmo had reached Rotherham and was about to descend the weir in the centre of the town. He had become used to these walls across the river and normally he found them only a minor problem. He had also noticed that an increasing number of other smolts were building up at these locations and their presence was beginning to attract a  number of large black birds which chased the smolts. As he descended further this was to become an increasing risk.

Below the weir the habitat varied little from that above but after a few miles things began to change. The water began flowing very slowly and became increasingly deep. In this new environment an increasing number of new fish species began to appear. Dominating the population were large shoals of silvery fish with vivid orange fins. These fish varied in size and seemed mainly concentrated close to the bottom. There were also smaller shoals of a brightly coloured fish with a dorsal fin that they raised like a sail when they became agitated. They were olive green in colour with darker bars extending down their bodies but it was their bright red fins which were the most striking.

perchroach

Eventually he reached the weir at Thrybergh, this was by far the biggest walled structure that he had encountered and presented a more daunting prospect to descend. Around him were several hundred other smolts all milling around and their presence had attracted the attention of at least half a dozen of the large black predatory birds. The birds were amazingly agile swimmers and despite the agility of the smolts many were being captured. In his panic Salmo, followed many of his fellows who overcame their reluctance and dropped over the weir into the pool below.

Here the habitat changed once again and for several miles the river became a series of pools and shallows with a strong steady flow. The fish population resembled that that he had encountered between Rotherham and Sheffield although there were a few additions. The most common of these were large shoals of a mottled brown fish which, in shape resembled the barbel Salmo had met earlier in his journey. They had the same whiskers around their mouths but were all small like Salmo.

He had now reached the confluence with the River Dearne and again the conditions were changing. The flow reduced and the depth increased dramatically. He also noticed that it was becoming increasingly hard to breathe and the water was discoloured. Again, new species were appearing with one in particular very abundant. They were large deep bodied fish, brown or black in colour and were present in large shoals which seemed engaged in sucking up and blowing out the sediment from the river bottom. As Salmo watched them through the murky water, there was a sudden, deafening noise, reverberating and pounding through the river. The fish around him scattered towards the edges as a huge black, floating object came churning up the river stirring up the bottom and creating huge turbulence. For some time after the object passed it was almost impossible to see where he was and he became extremely disorientated. It took almost an hour for conditions to improve and for the shoals of fish to return back to their normal feeding activities.

Despite still feeling sickened and a little scared, Salmo continued his downstream journey. He reached another large weir at Sprotbrough but resting here was most uncomfortable. As he struggled to breathe he began to feel listless, and reluctant to continue but, eventually, passed over the weir into the pool below. Thank goodness! He instantly felt the benefit of the oxygenated water tumbling over the structure. Resting close to a tree which had fallen into the river, a huge torpedo like fish with a mouth filled with evil looking teeth rushed towards him. The fish was green in colour, almost three feet in length and missed grabbing him by no more than a few inches. Terrified he shot off as quickly as he could.

Many of the fish he had seen previously were even more abundant in this section, but there was one different to anything he had ever seen before. Long, thin and snake-like it wriggled along the bottom.  The other fish ignored him as it buried into a dense weed bed alongside the bank.

Salmo was nearing the final obstacle on his downstream journey. He had reached Doncaster, the upstream limit of the rivers tidal influence. The final obstacle he had to contend with was a rock ramp fish pass made up of large rocks laid along a descending channel. This was much easier to deal with than the usual weirs and reminded him of the cascading water of the upper river where he once lived.

He had made it! All he had to do now was follow the rivers tidal flow down into the Humber Estuary. There would be hazards before he reached the sea, but his prospects were much improved. With good fortune, in two years’ time, he would be returning as a magnificent silver salmon which would retrace its steps back to the very same moorland section of river where he was born.

 

Answers:
The shoal of silver fish with orange fins were roach, the predominant species in the River Don. These fish can grow up to 2.5kls but rarely exceed half this weight in the Don. They can form huge shoals and for this reason are popular with anglers.

The fish with the bright red fins and striped backs were Perch. This species can be extremely predatory feeding on the fry of other species. They have a large dorsal fin with sharp spines at the tips which they erect when threatened.

The large deep bodied brown/black fish were bream. This species has become increasingly common in the lower reaches of the river and form shoals which can sometimes reach several hundred fish.

The small mottled brown fish which resembled young barbel were gudgeon. These fish rarely grow to more than a few grams in weight but form huge shoals. They have a preference for gravelly sections of river bed where there is a steady flow.

The large torpedo shaped fish was a Pike. These vicious predators dominate the rivers food chain and can grow up to 20kg in weight. They feed predominantly on fish but will not hesitate to take young ducklings if the opportunity arises. They prefer to wait for prey near reed beds where they dart out to intercept their victims.

The large black floating object that Salmo encountered was a commercial barge carrying fuel oil. Commercial operations on the Don system have reduced dramatically over the last 40 years and now only one vessel still operates. When fully laden the keel of this craft almost touches the bed of the river. Fish populations adapt to passing vessels by seeking shelter close to the banks as they pass, however the craft’s movement causes large amounts of sediment to be disturbed.

During periods of very low flow the slower moving sections of river upstream of Sprotborough can suffer periods of low dissolved oxygen. This is due to a build up of nutrients which promote algal blooms. These minute plants take in oxygen during the night, depleting levels to the point where fish can be affected. Most coarse fish species tolerate these conditions, but salmon and trout require higher oxygen levels and can struggle. This was the situation Salmo experienced passing through this section.

“Today I saw…” – Nature Journaling

Hello, it’s matt here.

There’s a real joy in seeing the first signs of spring. Lesser celandine creates a beautiful display of yellow stars along the river bank after what often feels like a long and grey winter, the first song of returning migrants like the chiff-chaff chewing through its two-note performance. The Marsham family (link – https://academic.oup.com/jxb/article/61/11/2853/440390) must have thought something similar and for a whopping 211 years recorded “indications of spring” – a collection of information on the first time they saw a range of different plants as they came into flower that year – until they were told they were no longer of use.

But this type of anecdotal evidence gave birth to a study known as ‘phenology’ – where we examine the effect of environmental changes on nature which is extremely important as we experience the effects of climate breakdown (if only the Marsham family had continued!!).

Keeping a nature jounal has an added benefit of helping us remember what we’ve seen that day, taking an opportunity to savour our favourite moments and if we’re ever feeling a bit depleted we can even look back on it in years to come and remember “that time I saw…”.

Our friends at Sheffield and Rotherham Wildlife Trust have made this great video for nature journaling with kids

But if I’m truly honest, despite loving seeing nature and talking about it ALOT, I don’t actually keep one myself so I’m going to challenge myself to keep one for a week and I’ll let you know how it goes.

Here’s a few ideas of what I might include in mine –

  • Date, time and location
  • What was it, how many?
  • How were they behaving?
  • A small sketch of what it looked like.

Here’s a page from Sally’s for inspiration

 

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Beginner’s Guide to Botanising

Weed or Wildflower?
“It’s a weed!” is what my Mum would shout on noticing my curiosity at a plant that had popped up unexpectedly in the garden. But to me the plants that wriggled through the cracks in the pavement or scattered the lawn uninvited were wildflowers.  The daisy and the dandelion are the ones we learn early and remember from childhood, but there are many more to find and learn.

Flower Families
With less floral diversity than many other parts of the world, an amateur botanist in the UK has a good chance at learning the names and habits of nearly all the native and introduced wildflowers. However, an easier way to learn, rather than one by one, is to learn the ‘families’ that plants are grouped into. Each family has a selection of characters which we can learn to recognise, for example the wonderful Carrot Family’s members have flowers that sit at the end of umbrella-spoked stems. Or the pea family, which includes clover, recognisable from their lip-shaped petals and neat little leaves.

The St John’s Wort family is an easy one – always yellow, with 5 pointed petals radiating around an explosion of stamens (where the pollen comes from!). The cabbage family, whose members have fat seed pods that point upwards, are alternatively called the Crucifers: the flowers all possess four distinct petals which appear like a cross. The Dead-nettle family (it’s members unrelated to the common nettle but with similar-shaped, un-stinging leaves) are a little trickier to spot. This is where our noses can help us as this family contains those herbs we are familiar with in the kitchen – marjoram, thymes and mints.

Once you’re aware of all the family groups and their defining characters, when you come across a new wildflower you can begin to narrow down where it might belong in the tree of life, and reach an identification much quicker!

Books
The best way to get to grips with the families is with a good guide or key. Francis Rose’s Wildflower key is a firm favourite among amateur botanists. At first it can be daunting, but with practise you can get to grips with the terminology by using the excellent illustrated glossary at the back (whorl and wing, ray and raceme, panicle and papus are a just a few of the words you’ll have to get used to as you learn to identify the plants around you). Francis Rose’s key is beautifully illustrated, but it can be nice to complement it with a photographic guide. Simon Harrap’s Wildflowers field guide is split into the same family groups but contains useful distribution maps and photos of each species, allowing you to be extra sure you’ve named that wildflower right.

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What’s in a name!
Wildflowers were once treasured and named for their healing properties. Nowadays few of us would dare to guess which wildflower might provide medicine for an ailment, but these secret medical uses are often hidden in the plant’s common names. Eyebrights (a dainty meadow flower in the Figwort Family) is still used today for eye problems, Speedwell (in the same family) provided curative tonics to speed healing and Feverfew (from the daisy family) in medieval Britain was planted around doorways to protect homes against disease and plague.

When to start? The best time is now!
The first flowers of Spring stick out like sore thumbs after months of winter and grey. First comes Lesser celandine in March, a bright yellow woodland flower (belonging to the Buttercup Family) which is a sure sign of Spring. You might spot Green Alkanet of the Borage family (forget-me-nots belong here too) with bristly spear-like leaves and bright blue five-petaled flowers. Then by the end of April appears Jack by the Hedge (the Cabbage family) with tiny white cross-shaped flowers and garlic-smelling leaves. Aim to learn the new flowers as they appear and watch them carefully as they change throughout the season.

Make a Herbarium
Why not make your own herbarium collection to refer to as you learn!

herbarium snapshot
CLICK HERE to watch the video

 

 

Life after Covid-19

We asked DCRT trustee John Housham to tell us his hopes and expectations for life and the environment after the coronavirus pandemic, read on to find out more…

Without a crystal ball it is hard to picture how things will be after our current situation is over, even whether it will be over.

The soothsayers are of course online with their views of our future way of living, government, economy and even the environment.  Some pessimistic, some optimistic and some in between.  Whatever the future becomes, we will all have created it.

What if we took the opportunity to create something better, more compassionate and humane, what could it look like? Here are my hopes on the future.

 

People will have new habits and values that protect the environment

Many more people will have experienced and interacted with their local environment alongside rivers, lakes and in parks in recent weeks.  There could be even more opportunity for people to connect with rivers and value the wildlife that they see, benefiting from the physical and mental stimulation. The environment will become more important to more people and all our healthcare.

 

More space and more diverse habitats will be created for wildlife

I recently heard that a fox appeared on platform 6 at Sheffield railway station… there is room for both people and wildlife in our towns and cities. You may have heard about the building of fish passes on the many weirs of the Don that will bring salmon back through Doncaster and Rotherham to Sheffield.  This could be extended to connect even more lengths of the Don up into Stocksbridge and the Peninnes or even opening up the River Dearne to Barnsley and River Rother to Chesterfield.  The River corridors could be teaming with an abundant and diverse wildlife from fish to birds to mammals for people to enjoy and value into the future.

 

Spark more community pride with more people working together

Pictures from space tell us of a new world with less air pollution brought about by less carbon emissions associated with fossil fuel travel and power generation.  These trends could continue with more working from home and less travel. Together we can all reduce pollution of water, land and air by producing less waste at home and at work and use more sustainable energy sources.

What would you like the future to look like?

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The Salmon’s Tale: The Middle Don

Join us for the next part of the Salmon’s Tale! In this blogging series by DCRT trustee Chris Firth, follow Salmo the salmon smolt as he travels from the River Don’s headwaters to the low, meandering reaches of the river. Learn which fish species inhabit the three different reaches of the Don and pick up some of the history of the Don along the way…

Salmo had reached the outskirts of Sheffield and everything he once knew was changing. The clarity of the water was no longer the crystal clear condition he had enjoyed in the upper river and the taste and scent were very different. As he dropped further down the river he felt unnerving vibrations and noises rumbling through the water. The bank side vegetation had been replaced by high stone walls, with strange objects moving along the tops of them.  The only thing which was consistent were the fish species he encountered. Trout and grayling were in abundance down here darting in and out of the bright green weed which stretched in long ribbons across the surface. He felt safe tucked under this weed but his sanctuary was short lived. Suddenly, without warning, a trout came hurtling past pursued by a large brown creature which expertly grabbed the fish in its mouth and swam up to the surface. It quickly carried its struggling victim to the river’s edge, before disappearing into the bankside vegetation.

This event prompted a desperate urge to keep up his descent. He had been coming upon an increasing number of the walls which stretched across the river but in most cases these had sections cut out of the top which enabled him to drop down into the pools below without much delay. He was now reaching the downstream outskirts of the city and having just descended a particularly large obstruction, noticed a large flow of water entering. This inflow almost doubled the flow of the river and had a particularly unusual taste and smell which he found rather distasteful. Nevertheless, within this flow were hundreds of small fish, very similar in size to himself. They were silvery in colour with slightly orange coloured fins, and appeared to be feeding on small particles in the flow. As he passed through this shoal he also noticed, on the fringes, a number of much larger fish drifting backwards and forwards. These were powerful looking and were clearly attempting to pick off weaker members of the small fish. They were bronze in colour with distinctive orange fins and black tails. They had large mouths that they opened and closed almost in anticipation of taking an easy meal. In an attempt to avoid them Salmo swam close to the opposite bank where there was some overhanging vegetation.

At this point the habitat was beginning to change even more, with very deep pools running into shallows. Fish seemed to everywhere but one group particularly caught his attention. They were laid close to the bottom on the gravelly shallows. They were huge, bronze in colour with the same bright orange fins, and their mouths seemed to be under their heads with strange whiskers hanging from their lips. Their size unnerved Salmo but, as he passed they completely ignored him.

Our salmon was now approaching the outskirts of Rotherham where another river joined the Don. From this point on the changes he was to encounter would be even more profound.

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The new fish species that Salmo encountered were dace, chub and barbel. These three species were introduced back into the recovering river Don in 1990 being released at several locations including below Sandersons Weir. The fish were purchased by Yorkshire Water from a fish farm run by the National Rivers Authority. These were some of the first coarse fish to be artificially reared in this country and before introduction were placed in tanks where the flow was steadily increased. This developed their strength, giving them the ability to swim against the flowing river. From these introductions the populations of these species have developed and are now fully sustainable.

Dace live in large shoals preferring steadily flowing water. They feed close to the surface and are sometimes seen in large numbers taking small insects as they drift down.  They rarely exceed 300g in weight or 20cm in length.

In their immature stage Chub can be easily mistaken for Dace. The easiest way to tell them apart is to look at the shape of the fins, particularly the anal fin. In dace the end of the fin is concave where as in chub the fins are convex. Chub can grow up to 4kls in weight. They have a very varied diet but can be extremely predatory feeding heavily on the fry of other species.

The iconic Barbel are extremely powerful fish and in the Don specimens of over 7kgs have been taken. They prefer conditions where there is a good flow pushing food downstream along the riverbed, such as below weirs. They can be found throughout the middle and lower reaches of the Don.