Apprentice Week: My Apprenticeship with DCRT

Tackling invasive species, working with volunteers and performing habitat enhancement, have all been a part of my apprenticeship with the Don Catchment Rivers Trust. I have been with the Trust since October 2017, and have worked on lots of exiting projects such as the Living Heritage of the River Don and the Moss Valley project (read more here). Over my time in the trust my knowledge and passion for the environment has been enhanced and has given me more drive to do my best to improve our local environment.

Me, removing Himalayan Balsam at Wardsend Cemetery

Over the time I have worked for the trust I have been on lots of training courses to learn new skills such as getting a brush cutter and chainsaw tickets, my pesticide spraying qualification and my first aid. I have also been on lots of useful nature courses such as the bat ID training and a hydrology training course.

Me and some volunteers at the start of a Bat survey I led last year

I have been employed on the new project Hidden Heritage and Secret Streams as a level 3 apprentice. It means I will have a larger role in the project and will be working more independently. This year I’m doing units such as managing volunteer groups which I have started to do by taking a larger role in working with the Friends of the Don Valley Way. I will also be completing some plant surveys in the new project area.

Me, cutting back vegetation in Sheffield at the beginning of my Apprenticeship

By Anthony Cox


Salmon in the Don: the journey

2019 marks International Year of the Salmon, and what a start to the year it has been! Multiple adult salmon have not just been found in the River Don but show evidence that they have spawned. Whether the conditions will be right for their young to survive and thrive is unclear, but the long awaited return of the salmon run to Sheffield’s rivers may not be far away…

Female salmon found at the River Don in Sheffield 

Salmon divide their lives between salt and freshwater. As adults they live in the ocean, but will migrate from as far away as Greenland to return to UK rivers, including the Don to lay their eggs and start the next generation.

Life in the redd
For the eggs that have been laid in the river Don, they begin their journey buried in protective nests of gravel called redds, which are created by the spawning females. Cool, river water flows over the redds, oxygenating the incubating eggs for around 100 days. The newly hatched fish, or alevin, are less than 2cm long and rely on a nourishing yolk sac until they are ready to disperse from the redd as salmon fry.

Emerging at night
Fry avoid lurking predators by leaving the safety of the redd at night. Dispersing downstream, each fry finds a suitable territory which they will defend from other fish as they feed and grow. They develop stripes and markings on their scales as they grow into the next life-cycle stage, parr. Some of the salmon will remain parr for several years, growing slowly in the river Don’s waters before migration to sea.

Migration to sea
The changes involved in the next stage of the life cycle, migration downstream to the ocean, gives the salmon their name Smolt. The smolt undergo changes to their physiology, body shape and colour. Small and silvery, they have lost their parr-marks and have become less visible to predators. If our river Don salmon make it to this life-stage, they will band together and travel downstream in shoals, their behaviour changing ahead of life in the oceans.

Known as post-smolts, the salmon that make their way to the North Sea are swept to nursery areas, rich in food. As they grow they travel great distances.

The Homing Instinct 
Using their excellent sense of smell, salmon can navigate back to the river they were born in. A small amount of salmon don’t have this natural instinct and stray to other rivers, allowing re-population of other rivers where salmon have been lost. On reaching the Humber estuary the salmon begin to migrate upstream, leaping spectacularly over obstacles along the way.

Fish passes have been installed on weirs along the River Don, helping salmon over these steep, unnatural obstacles

Salmon return to freshwater at any time of the year but may wait in freshwater pools for over a year before spawning in late autumn. They don’t actively feed during this time, surviving off reserves of fat built up at sea, but sometimes instinct mean they will go for a well presented angler’s lure!

Females migrate to the spawning sites first where they begin to make their redds, lifting and flicking gravel with their tails into position. Their pheromones attract males and soon the adult salmon pair up. The males have become colourful, developing a red belly and a distinctive hooked lower jaw, called a kype, to attract females from other males. Female pheromones attract males to their redds and work to synchronise mating, the female releases her eggs and the males fertilise them.

The majority of Atlantic salmon, which would have exhausted their fat reserves during the long migration, die after spawning. However, a small proportion, mostly females, survive and return downstream as kelts to feed and recover in coastal waters, building up fat reserves for another migration.


2018 in the Don Catchment Rivers Trust

This year was the final year of the 3-year Living Heritage of the River Don project and what a year it has been. I’ve picked out some of the highlights to share with you.

River Guardians

We’ve worked with 19 fantastic school, education and scout groups this year during our LHRD and Brelms Trust project and have taught hundreds of children how to look after their river! Pupils have created miniature aquariums for mayfly larvae, helped stop pollution going down drains, used a microscope and litter-picked by the river.

A huge thank you to our education volunteers who supported our educational visits this year!


Youth Art

We’ve been involved in three really fantastic youth art projects this year!

The first was at mural project in Doncaster, working with artist Chris Swain, where young people learnt street art skills and brightened up a rather grey wall a Crimpsall Sluice.

The finished wall at Crimpsall Sluice

For our next project we worked alongside street artist Faunagraphic at Holmes Lock, restoring a vandalised wall along the Don Valley Way. The wall features creatures and plants that can be found along our waterways.
For our final project we worked in collaboration with Site Gallery and award-winning artist Eelyn Lee who led art students from the Sheffield College to create a film and exhibition of work about the river Don and Wardsend Cemetry. The River Project: Categories of Life and Death was exhibited for a week at Site Gallery and was accompanied by a special outdoor screening in the Cemetery itself!20181026_162043

Volunteer Days and Clean Ups

We’ve worked with 143 volunteers to remove 1644 plastic bags, 13 trolleys, 58 tyres, 17 traffic cones, 11 bikes, 5 prams and 5 TV’s from the rivers in Sheffield, Rotherham and Doncaster. We’ve been improving several ‘hotspot’ areas by installing benches, bins and new information boards to teach passers-by about the history and wildlife of the Don.
most of the volunteers
Thanks to all those that dedicated their time by attending volunteer days, meetings and training. Our volunteers have contributed 1122 hours to improving the river Don and Don Valley Way this year and some of them have even organised their own litter picks! We hope you continue to work with us in 2019 and on our new project.20180913_130039

Well done all!

Moss Valley Project20180926_125918

This project started in December 2017 and was funded by grants from the Don Network and Yorkshire water. The project was ran by our Project Assistant Matt Duffy. During the project we removed obstacles to fish migration, created in-stream habitats and reinstated marshland along the river Moss. You can read more about this project here.20180718_094302

Discovery Days and Community Events20180721_122341

We’ve really enjoyed partnering up with the Canal & Rivers Trust, Shanks, Friends of Wardsend Cemetery, Sheffield and Rotherham Wildlife Trust and many other organisations on our community events in 2018.39004232_10155700564505382_5572827522346778624_o

We hope these events will continue to grow so look out for them in 2019.

Apprenticeship By Anthony Cox

I have been working at DCRT for the last 15 months but my Apprenticeship is now drawing to a close. In the time I have been with the trust I have learnt a lot and loved every second with my role. I have learnt lots of skills that will be useful in my future career and have gained lots of useful qualifications as well. But the best part of working in the DCRT team is that we are all passionate about the river and surrounding environment and we all work hard to try to improve it as much as we can. Working with our amazing volunteers is great to, its good to meet people who give up their time to help improve the world for other people without gaining anything but each others friendship. So in conclusion coming to work for the trust is the best decision I ever made.20180705_110650.jpg

Whats coming next?

Hidden Heritage Secret Streams!

We did it! Our funding application for the Hidden Heritage Secret Streams Project has been successful!! Read more about it in the press release here!

We can’t wait to get started on the project in the new year!2018_08_15 Hipper Brook Volunteers

Thank you to the project Funders:
The Heritage Lottery Fund
Environment Agency
Big Lottery / Awards for All
Coalfields Regeneration Trust
HB Allen Trust
Duke of Devonshire’s Charitable Trust
Yorkshire Water

Fungi walk in Canklow Woods


Thought we’d do a little bit about the ‘Fungi Walk’ we organised in Canklow Woods, Rotherham with ecologist Julie Riley last month.  We spotted a total number of 27-species in little over 2-hours , a full list you can download here – Canklow Woods fungi list. I’ll let the pictures do the talking with this one as we found many beautiful specimens.

20181007_121309A walk through the woods



Our knowledgeable walk leader Julie with a old branch which has some Dead Moll’s Fingers creeping out.


A closer look at Dead Moll’s Fingers



A Hoof Fungus or Tinder Bracket


A Fly Agaric just opening up through its veil


… a little further


… and fully open. Beautiful!

IMG_4730Thank you to all that came along and enjoyed this walk with us!

Grant funding allows habitat improvements to the River Moss catchment

Hello Matt here again. I just wanted to tell everyone about our Moss Valley Project which has finished after starting it in December 2017. This project has been funded by Yorkshire Water and Don Network grants.

We worked with landowners, parish councillors and the Moss Valley Wildlife Group to establish aims for the project through a number of designated tasks.

Our aims for the project were to remove an obstacle to fish migration, improve instream and riparian habitat, reinstate flow to Never Fear Dam and to remove encroaching scrub from a nearby fen thereby improving the ecological condition of the Moss catchment.

Remove obstacle to fish migration

The collapse of Neverfear Weir several years ago presented an opportunity to remove this obstacle to fish passage on the Moss Brook. During high flows the weir had breached, but the debris still presented a barrier to fish movement (see Picture 1). Through a combination of manual clearance (see Picture 3) and the employment of a digger and drill we were able to clear the debris blocking the river (see Picture 4).

20171122_111408 Picture 1. Neverfear Weir blocking the Moss Brook


Picture 2. Digger breaking capstone apart

2017-11-22 20.02.35.jpg

Picture 3. The team at work clearing debris.


Picture 4. Connectivity restored.

Improving instream and riparian habitat

In-stream habitat was improved in over-widened channels through the installation of fixed woody debris (see Picture 5) and the creation of ‘tree kickers’ (see Picture 6) which improved natural processes such as sediment sorting, scour, flow heterogeneity, as well as introduced new microhabitats. The riparian canopy was thinned, as a mixture of tree cover and canopy improves biodiversity.


Picture 5. The Wild Trout Trust demonstrating how to use fixed woody debris to improve river habitat.


Picture 6. Some of the ‘tree kickers’ habitat enhancement work.


Picture 7. This fixed woody debris was placed at a point of excessive erosion so to reduce the amount of sediment entering the river in addition to providing new microhabitats.

Removal of scrub encroachment

The riparian fen at the bottom of the Moss Valley SSSI was becoming increasingly overrun with trees and scrub (see Picture 8). Over nine days we worked with volunteers to clear small trees, scrub, brambles and Himalayan Balsam (see Pictures 8, 9 & 10).


Picture 8. Trees and scrub encroaching on one of the fields.


Picture 9. The same field after clearance.


Picture 10. No cutting had been done for a number of years so trees of substantial size needed felling.

Reinstate Flow to Never Fear Dam

A goit leading to Never Fear Dam had kept the dam topped up with water. But over time the bank wall had eroded away allowing water escape back into the main river (picture 11) leading to water levels dropping in the dam.


Picture 11. Water  loss from the goit (before)

We rebuilt the goit bank using stone from the concrete capstone and used the digger to deposit clay and soils to reinforce the bank walls. To prevent erosion we secured coir netting to the soil and spread grass seed to knit the soil together (Picture 12.).


Picture 12. Goit wall (after)

Another issue occurred during high water/winter conditions with a lot of water pooling around bridge over the goit (picture 13). This was due to a culvert being silted up reducing the flow. We decided to remove the culvert and replace it with a bridge (picture 15) allowing free flow of water underneath.


Picture 13. Silted culvert (before)


Picture 14. New bridge over Never Fear Dam goit

We created a spill way (picture 15) upstream of the bridge to allow water to be released back into the main river, relieving the amount of water passing further down.


Picture 15. Spill way


The last job: Introducing marginal plants to Neverfear Dam

Now that water levels in Neverfear Dam have been restored we finished off our Moss Valley Project by introducing a mixture of marginal plant species to Neverfear Dam during a volunteer day. (Picture 16, 17 and 18) This included Yellow Flag Iris and Phalaris grasses, which have been known by the MVWG to have once grown in the area providing habitat for harvest mice.


Picture 16. Before 20181024_131651.jpg

Picture 17. During



Picture 18. After


Thank you to everyone that has been involved with the Moss Project over this last year, couldn’t have done it without our dedicated volunteers.



The Lost Fish Species of the Lower River Don

Our Trustee Chris Firth (MBE) describes the historical drainage of the lower Don’s diverse wetlands, which species can still be found and which are yet to return.

Prior to the early part of the 17th century the lower River Don consisted of a vast area of wetland which extended from the town we now know as Thorne all the way to the confluence of the Rivers Trent and Ouse. It then extended up the Trent valley as far as Misterton and across from there to the outskirts of Doncaster. It covered an area equivalent to 90 thousand acres and encompassed one of England’s foremost Royal hunting estates, the Hatfield Chase.

This area of land known as the Isle of Axholme was made up of a myriad of wetland habitats including lakes, meres, ponds, marshes, reed beds and river channels including those of the Rivers Idle and Torne which at that time were tributaries of the Don. Most notable of the features was Bradmere, a huge lake which at the time was regarded as the second largest body of fresh water in Yorkshire eclipsed only by Semerwater up in the Yorkshire Dales. Bradmere stood immediately to the west of Thorne and received the flow of the Don as it coursed its way into the wetlands of the Isle of Axholme. This area was subjected to frequent inundation from both spring tides and fluvial flooding and provided conditions which accommodated a huge variety of fish species. Passing annually up the river channel were huge numbers of salmon and sea trout heading for the clean fresh conditions of the upper Don and its tributaries. An indication of the numbers of these species frequenting the river can be gained from their market value at the time. Salmon was the cheapest fish available and was generally eaten by only the poorest in society. In comparison, eels were jealously guarded with the rights to fish for them most often held by Monastic Orders. In the lakes, ponds and meres species such as roach, bream, perch and pike would have abounded and these would have been the most common species exploited by the residents as a source of food. But there were other species which despite the Don’s recovery from gross pollution, are no longer found. Species such as the smelt a small silvery fish which appeared in huge shoals and moved up the tidal areas to spawn. Another was the burbot a freshwater member of the cod family. Both of these species would have been present in huge numbers as would river lamprey which would have entered the river to reproduce. Interestingly the river lamprey’s larger cousin the sea lamprey made its first appearance in the Don in 2016 after more than a century of absence. All of these species were tolerant of the brackish conditions created by saline influence of the Humber Estuary.

Today, smelt are still found in parts of the Humber Estuary but in very small numbers compared to the vast shoals which once existed. They make their way into the estuary between January and April to breed then drop back out to sea. As late as the 1970s large numbers of this species would make their way, by way of connected channels, into the lakes created by redundant mineral workings along the Humber banks around Barton and Hessle and annually their presence could be detected by a distinctive smell of thyme rising from the water. Their decline has been blamed on a number of factors mainly associated with land drainage activities. The introduction of clough gates and pumping stations at the outfalls into the estuary undoubtably had a significant impact as it restricted access to many of the most suitable spawning sites. Despite there being a remnant population in the estuary, no sign of them returning to the River Don has been found.

The burbot is the only member of the cod family to live in freshwater and as earlier stated, was once common in the rivers connected to the Humber. Its eating qualities were regarded as very good despite its ugly appearance and it would undoubtably have been a prized dish for the residents of the lower Don. Burbot were still present in relatively large numbers in the Yorkshire Derwent in the late 1940’s and early 50’s and my uncle was a regular visitor to Bubwith and Wressle often returning with half a dozen fish for the table. Its decline and later extinction has been blamed once again on land drainage practices, particularly the construction of the barrage which was built at the outfall of the Derwent into the River Ouse, changing the tidal nature of the river. Today the burbot is recognised as extinct in British waters.

sturgeon no copyright
The European Sea Sturgeon, Acipenser sturio

Probably the most iconic species yet to make a reappearance is the European sea sturgeon, once an occasional visitor to the Don. These huge fish, some weighing in excess of 200 lbs, probably entered the river in search of suitable spawning sites but the construction of weirs, particularly the one at Doncaster built around the 12th century, would have been a complete barrier to their upstream movement. There are records of these fish being speared and gaffed when they appeared in the weir pool at Doncaster where, because of their size, they would have been easy prey to the local human population.

The recovery of the River Don’s fish population has been remarkable over the last 25 years with 27 of the river’s original 32 recorded species now present within the system. The prospects for the return of smelt and river lamprey are probably good despite the national decline of these species but the likelihood of us witnessing the return of burbot and sturgeon are poor, particularly with burbot which is recognised as extinct in British waters. The only possibility of this happening would be reintroduction from populations existing in Europe, something which has been considered. We must recognise however that because of the extensive draining of the Don’s tidal floodplain in the 17th century, the habitat of the lower river has fundamentally changed resulting in little being left of the habitat that supported such a remarkable fishery.

We should never say never and perhaps some time in the future the work that has taken place to restore this once incredible river system will be rewarded with the return of all of its historic fishery inhabitants.


Doncaster Pupils Become Budding ‘River Champions’

A grant from the Brelms Trust enabled us to engage 107 young people living in disadvantaged areas in Doncaster with our exciting schools project – ‘River Champions’. This allowed us to go into schools and teach pupils about their local rivers and freshwater life through a program of environmentally orientated lessons. Pupils learned about the ecology of the river told through the story of the mayfly enabling them to build a model of the river in the classroom and seeing mayfly nymphs metamorphosise before their eyes. We accessed training in how to deliver this aspect of the project through Paul Gaskell at the Wild Trout Trust as we would be engaging multiple schools. Once DCRT staff were trained-up, this information was passed on to classroom teachers, allowing future classes to participate in this project.

Schools that took part were also invited out to a field visit to the river; this is something disadvantaged schools have limited funds for, particularly for coaches. During their visit to the river classes had the opportunity to do some river dipping, seeing what invertebrates live in the river. During the field trip we delivered ‘Yellowfish’ – an EA project that aims to teach pupils about how pollution affects the river ecology and how they can help stop pollutants entering the river system. This proved to be an engaging method of making the link between human activity and environmental impacts.

This project hopes to inspire the next generation of environmentally-conscious young people by broadening their horizons and stimulating new interests, in turn having an impact in the physical environment of their local areas. The grant contributed towards staff costs, pupil’s transport and tank equipment. We would have not been able to deliver this project without the grant funds from the Brelms Trust.

Quotes from class teachers included:

“Children really enjoyed the Mayfly session and the creation of the habitat. Children were involved in every aspect of this and built up substantial knowledge of this area through videos, discussion and visuals. Fantastic session.”

Y5 Teacher at Windhill Primary School


“Matt and his assistant were fantastic, very enthusiastic and knowledgeable. They had a nice manner with the children who responded well to them and learnt a great deal.”

Y6 teacher at New Pastures Primary School

If you know of a primary school that would be interested in taking part in this project in Spring/Summer 2019 please get in touch with us at or call us on 01302 796173.

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