River Rother Well Dressing

What is well dressing?

Well dressing is an ancient calendar custom in Derbyshire, first documented in Chesterfield in 1864 when the town decorated the market place water pump during a very dry summer. However, it’s thought the custom of dressing wells began long before this with, some historians suggesting Roman and Pagan origins before it’s use in Christian churches. Like many of the UK’s calendar customs, the tradition over time died out, but was revived in Chesterfield in 1991 and has continued ever since.

The dressings are created on wooden boards which are soaked for several days in water. Traditionally local village ponds and even rivers were used to soak the boards, which once soaked were pulled out to be coated in clay. Once the clay is smoothed the design can be applied and is outlined onto the clay. We used peppercorns for our outline, but traditionally locals would have foraged alder cones from riverside trees. The shapes are then carefully filled with layers of natural materials such as petals, eggs shells, seeds and leaves. Decorating the well dressing feels wonderfully eco-friendly, with materials sustainably foraged from gardens and wild spaces.

The beautiful creations are ephemeral in nature, often only lasting a week or two before the clay dries and cracks & the petals wilt and discolour.

The River Rother Well Dressing

A result of restrictions in events and social distancing, the Hidden Heritage Secret Streams team sent out mini-well dressing kits to twelve families, or bubbles, in Chesterfield & Sheffield.

With just a week to design and create their masterpieces we were so impressed with the beautiful dressings returned! Why not flick through our gallery to admire the detail of each one.

Together the individual well dressings show a colourful picture of a leaping Atlantic Salmon, to celebrate the salmon found in the River Rother earlier this year and the ecological recovery of the river, once considered the most polluted in Europe.

A huge thank you to all the people and families who got involved, Geoff Bell from Men in Sheds for creating the wooden boards and frame, and to Tapton Lock Activity Centre for hosting the display. Funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund as part of the Hidden Heritage Secret Streams project.

Our new Project Assistant!

In this blog we hear from our Environmental Conservation Apprentice Anthony, on finishing his training and starting his new role, Project Assistant, at the Trust. Congratulations Anthony!

Hi, I’m Anthony and I have worked for DCRT for almost 3 years now. During my time with the Trust, I’ve worked on the Living Heritage of the River Don project and I’m currently working on the Hidden Heritage, Secret Streams project, both funded by the National Lottery. Over this time I’ve completed my Level 2 and Level 3 apprenticeship in Environmental Conservation. This month I move onto my new role as Project Assistant, so thought it would be a good time to reflect on my time as an apprentice with the Trust.

Me on my first ever volunteer day with the Don Catchment Rivers Trust – I soon passed my driving test and was able to drive the van!

My first day was in October 2017 when I started working on the Living Heritage of the River Don Project. I helped to run volunteer days along the Don Valley Way, a walking route along the River Don, that I would later be managing my own volunteer activities on. I also worked at several community events to promote our project and recruit new volunteers. Completing my level 2 apprenticeship provided me with lots of transferable skills to help me with my future career in the environmental sector. It gave me both useful qualifications and extremely valuable experience in the sector.

While completing my Level 2 I learnt how to treat invasive plant species such as Himalayan Balsam, gained a ticket to use a brush cutter and acquired a first aid certificate. These qualifications and skills are just a few of the many I acquired at the Trust to help me gain employment in the environmental sector.

Removing the invasive species, Himalayan Balsam

At the end of the project there was an opportunity for me to apply to do a higher level apprenticeship with the DCRT. This was working on the new lottery project based on the River Rother, Hidden Heritage, Secret Streams. I was succesful and started my next apprenticeship, where I worked on and ran volunteer days, conducted plant surveys, gained a chainsaw qualification and created interpretive media to promote the Trust. It gave me the opportunity to take on new responsibilities and improve my leadership and volunteer management skills.

Anthony working at an event in Chesterfield

The past three years have allowed me to gain both the practical and theoretical skills I need to be able to take up the Project Assistant role. Without my apprenticeship it would have been incredibly difficult to get a job in the environmental sector, so I am incredibly grateful for the opportunity and for the help of everyone at the Don Catchment Rivers Trust. I’m looking forward to my new role and continuing to work with our fantastic volunteers and my colleagues.

DCRT volunteer Dan and Anthony, on his final day as an apprentice

Want to work in Conservation?
In 2021 DCRT will offer two work experience placements to students in Chesterfield (aged 16-18 years). Students will have the opportunity to gain valuable and diverse experience in the conservation sector, including:
* Working outdoors and in rivers
* Protecting nature and inspiring others to help
* Experience working with a team
* Representing the Trust at community events
* Training opportunties and office skills
Want to know more? Email info@dcrt.org.uk

Lockdown reads: DCRT’s Wildlife Book Club

“I’d never read a nature book like this before”
“It really opened up a whole new world of literature for me”

The 2020 Lockdown put much of our work at DCRT on hold. To keep us all safe, volunteer days and community events were struck off the calendar, to be replaced with a range of online activities. For those unable to leave their homes, the team wanted to help people stay connected to nature and we started the Wildlife Lockdown Bookclub. Our club of twelve readers got together each month to read and discuss four different wildlife-themed books: Here’s a summary of what we thought of them.

The firm favourite:
The first book we read and the favourite for most of our book club readers. Wilding follows the author, Isabella Tree’s journey as an estate landowner who is inspired to experiment with the landscape. Wild, free-roaming pigs, cattle and deer are slowly introduced to the Knepp estate, which together trigger the return of lost ecosystem processes and revive pesticide-ridden farm fields into organic, wild pastures. We learn that allowing herbivores to roam and browse the estate freely, physically changes the landscape at the Knepp estate, rebuilding lost habitats and attracting rare, threatened species. The estate now boasts some of the UK’s rarest animals such as the nightingale and purple emperor butterfly. Shortly after finishing the book, the first wild storks in centuries hatched at the estate, hitting the news and once again showing us readers the power of ‘Wildling’.

“I have really enjoyed all the books, although like the majority ‘Wilding’ was my favourite, it was quite inspirational and the estate’s on my “must visit” list for the future!”

River restoration also features in the book, a subject close to home for the DCRT team. The estate’s river is reconnected to the floodplain and its original meanders restored through the introduction of woody debris and removal of weirs that reinstate a natural flow. We learn how restoration not only improves water quality and habitat diversity, but reduces localised flooding.

Read this book if you: Want a new understanding of ecology and the loss of British wildlife, want to feel inspired, are a landowner or nature-enthusiast.

The relaxing read:
Still water: the deep life of the pond by John Lewis-Stempel
Split into the four seasons, the book follows the life of the pond and a year of our writer’s life, written as short diary entries. We hop between the UK and French countryside, learning the ecology and history of the pond through poems, quotes and vivid descriptions. The writer’s detailed and lyrical prose make this book feel like a love-letter to the pond, and it’s plight.

In the UK, the loss of countryside ponds is estimated by as much as 50% in the last 50 years. The ponds that remain are at risk from urban development, pollution and a lack of management, slowly filling in and becoming dry. The ponds that have lasted are also changing; 2019’s State of Nature Report noted that since the 1990s, ponds in protected landscapes have lost 25% of their wetland plants and are much less diverse. We find out in the book that ponds are not only incredibly abundant, diverse habitats, but have a wilder environmental value, acting as magnets for wildlife living nearby. The writer implores to us for their protection and it works!

“Feel like I ought to get out there and dig one”

Read this book if you:
Want a relaxing bed-time read, you enjoy poetry, want tips to build a wildlife-pond

Facts & HisTory:

The long, long life of trees by Fiona Stafford
This book is a journey through time, exploring the folklore, culture and human fascination with trees that has lasted throughout the centuries. An exploration of paintings, poems and stories, the writer dedicates each of the seventeen chapters to a British tree. We discover humankinds use of different species for meeting points, for fuel and building and as symbols of devotion.

Read this book if you: Want never-ending knowledge of trees, enjoy flipping between chapters.

The wildlife thriller:
Another firm favourite and a special book for most of our team who have been working hard to create our own salmon stronghold on the river Don. The book follows life of the author’s cousin, Guido and his quest to save wild salmon. Although some of us felt that it had a slow start, most of us warmed to Guido as he grows up in the USA, taking his passion for the natural world into an incredible career in conservation. A few of us couldn’t put the book down by the end, devouring it in a few days! Guido’s desire to save the wild salmon brings him to Russia where he makes salmon-worthy leaps in protecting whole river systems, or ‘strongholds’. The writer’s comparison of America’s controlled and broken river systems with the untouched, stunning (and dangerous!) rivers of rural Russia, helpsthe writer weave complex ecological ideas, science and conservation theories, in an easily-digested way. The book also reveals fascinating insights into the world of angling and international conservation.

“Having made the effort to read them all I was amazed at how engrossed I became and how much I got out of each book – not just new knowledge but understanding of different aspects of ecology and our environment.”

Read this book if you: want to learn more about worldwide human-threats to salmon, want to be inspired to make change, are interested in angling.

All books were funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund as part of the Hidden Heritage Secret Stream project.

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What’s To Be Don at Brightside?

Working in rivers that have heritage structures with a complex history of ownership and usage can be a challenge. We love it, but we do get some interesting problems sometimes! This has recently come to the fore when we noticed a partial weir collapse at Brightside in Sheffield.

Over the last 10 years DCRT and several other organisations have been helping migrating fish such as salmon back into the catchment by building fish passes – notably on weirs that aren’t in any obvious ownership owing to their complex history over hundreds of years. We call them ‘orphan’ weirs.

Because many of the weirs on the Don in particular are large structures with no owners, they don’t necessarily get maintained. As such one or two of them have not fared well over the last few years, what with the high waters and flooding.

Earlier in the year we noticed a partial collapse of Brightside Weir in Sheffield, which is a weir that has a fish pass. It also doesn’t have an owner. The rubble from the weir collapse was blocking the attraction flow of the fish pass, and with the salmon run season looming this caused a conundrum, because if no one owned the weir, no one was liable to fix the problem.

This caused many internal and external discussions, as we had to weigh up what could and should been done. Options to think about included:

  • Fixing the weir if the collapse was going to affect the fish pass – fixing weirs is not something a rivers trust would naturally advocate for, but could have been an option for the greater good if necessary, if issues around future liabilities could be solved.
  • Consider asking to remove part of the weir where the collapse is, or for the whole weir to be removed (making the fish pass redundant). Although, removal was considered originally and never a viable option, and is why the weir has a fish pass.
  • Leave the collapse as it is and clear away the rubble to unblock the fish pass
  • Do nothing

After satisfying ourselves that the fish pass itself had not been compromised as a result of the collapse, we also realised that abstraction in the area would rule out any weir removal options.

We didn’t feel a ‘do nothing’ approach was suitable in this situation either. We recently completed an important fish pass project downstream at Masborough in Rotherham. This was the last major obstacle for migrating fish on the Don, and we didn’t want 20 years of overall work to be wasted this year if we have the chance of a good run of salmon. 

So, because no organisation is responsible for the problem, DCRT has decided to remove the rubble from the collapse for the sake of clearing the way for migrating fish up the fish pass, and to monitor the situation from there.

To do this we have been working with British Land to gain access over their land near Meadowhall to the weir, and in mid September our contractors will be entering the river to clear away the debris.

We hope this blog gives you an insight into our work as a Rivers Trust and charity, and our aspiration & commitment of having a sustainable population of salmon in the catchment again soon!

How to deceive a fish: Fly-tying

In this blog we speak to DCRT trustee David Rowley on his favourite past-time, fly fishing, and learn how to make a fly ourselves!

Hi David,
Thank you for taking the time to teach us about fly-fishing today and the wonderful art of mimicking riverflies!

How is fly-fishing different to other types of fishing?
Fly fishing as the name suggests uses a fly to attract and catch fish. Trout and Grayling feed on both the nymphal and adult stages of invertebrates. So artificial flies are made to fool the fish into trying to eat them.

The main difference between fly fishing and other forms of fishing is that the means by which flies are propelled to the fish. The flies weigh almost nothing so the energy imparted into the fly line by the fly rod makes the fly fly through the air into range of the fish. Other forms of fishing use some form of weight attached the end of the line to get the bait to the fish.

What species of fly are you trying to mimic?
Trout and Grayling will eat any insects in the river. So all the mayflies, we call them upwings in the UK and reserve mayfly for the very large Danica that hatch in May and June (particularly here in the North). Flies are tied to imitate the nymph and adult flying stages of river insects. Sedges, baetis, stoneflies, blue winged olives, heptagenids. Tying nymphs to remain under water and winged flies to float on the surface is a further complication.

How do you make a fly?
Flies are made by binding pieces of hair or feathers onto a hook to mimic an invertebrate, the natural food of fish. Watch my video to learn how to tie a fly known as the Black & Peacock Spider.

Flies are tied from all sorts of materials both natural and artificial. The most common natural materials are feathers, pieces of fur and hair. You can buy these from specialist shops/the internet either natural or dyed in a variety of colours. These are coupled with synthetic materials from the carpet makers or haberdashers such as threads and wires.

Why did you take up fly fishing?
Fishing is a very good at taking your mind off the issues of the day. You have to concentrate completely, not dissimilar to golf. I took up fishing simply because my son wanted to go fishing. I had not fished as a child so had to set about finding out how to do it. I got hooked and 40 years later am still fishing.

How do you pick the best spots to fish?
Fly fishing can be done on lakes and reservoirs from the bank or a boat but can also be done in rivers either from the bank or wading in the river.

In still waters the fish swim round constantly looking for food. Food can be on the surface, in the surface film or below the surface at the depth that the food is.

In rivers fish still swim but they tend to stay still relative to the bank, they swim to maintain position. They want a location that is just off the current to save energy but near to where food will be delivered to the. There is a pecking order, the biggest fish have the best lies where the most food source is. If a fish is caught his place will be taken by the next strongest fish.

The best places to fish are learnt either by experience or asking someone who fishes that water regularly.

Do you fly-fish? After two decades of work on weirs along the Don, Atlantic Salmon are now finally able to migrate to spawning grounds in Sheffield! We’d love to hear if you think you’ve spotted one (you can email info@dcrt.org.uk with any photos and we will get them identified!)

A Classy Rain Garden

This volunteers’ week we hear from DCRT volunteer Barry Caldwell about some fantastic work he’s been doing during lockdown to help us on our mission to reduce flood risk in and around Chesterfield.

Inspired by Debbie’s recent weekly newsletter article on rain gardens, I thought I would give it a go, albeit a little different from the original instructions! I already had two water butts being fed from my garage roof but when full and if I forgot to take water out with a watering can, they were draining down the drive into the roadside drains, especially in winter.

Of course, this is not great for ‘slowing the flow’ (nor my drive!). So, I found an old water butt and used materials already lying around the garden for this rain garden butt and irrigation system that will use excess water from the rain garden butt to drain into three large plant containers and two large plant pots. I can also take water out of the rain garden water butt via the tap at the bottom if needed.

For the rain garden butt, I filled the base with some limestone chippings (1) and covered these with membrane (2), as per the rain garden instructions. I connected a short piece of piping from the second water butt and fed it into a deep plant pot filled with gravel (3) in the rain garden butt and filled with soil. I planted a bamboo (4) that I had spare from elsewhere in the garden as they are quite thirsty plants and in themselves will take up some water.

In case of the rain garden butt filling up and overflowing, I decided to run a 12mm piece of piping from the rain garden butt overflow hole into the other containers/plant pots down my drive, there is already a natural gradient. I drilled 4mm holes every 2cms in the piping to allow water from the rain garden butt overflow to dribble into the containers/plant pots if the rain garden water butt ever fills up with water (5).

To add a touch of class (not something I’m known for!) I put a bit of champagne cork I found in the garden from last Christmas in the end of the piping to stop it draining out (6). My wife is always telling me to ‘put a cork in it’! The full rain garden and irrigation system (7) will hopefully ‘slow the flow’ as well as saving me from watering the containers/pots as frequently as before! I might be the only person now excited for rain / winter to see how it all works (if at all). I just need a panda now to eat the bamboo shoots!

Matt’s experience nature journaling

Two weeks ago I challenged myself to keep a nature journal and so here is my experience of writing one…

I was maybe a bit over ambitious thinking I would be able to keep one every day as I only made four entries in those two weeks but I’ve realised it is something that you don’t have to do every day. Here’s how my first entry went –

“20th May 2020

Cycled through Kelham Island, Sheffield central and Nether Edge on my way to the allotment.

I saw sand martins nesting in a crack in the wall next to Blonk Street bridge.

I tried to find a wildflower ‘Spring Beauty’ which I had made a record of on my iSpot account a few years ago in Nether Edge but when I got to the place where I had seen it all the paths had obviously been sprayed-off. I wondered whether there was a way that path maintenance and footpath wild/wallflowers could co-exist?

I heard a blue tit and a song thrush in the allotment”

I then decided to draw a picture of the wildflower ‘Green Alkanet’ which had popped up next to the seating area at the allotment.

As you can see the drawing is very rough. I would never usually consider doing this but since it is a useful part of a nature journal I decided to do it. Whilst observing it my attention was drawn to its very hairy stem, deep veined leaves and the purple-blue colour of its small flowers. I studied the flowers further and noticed how the petals were formed to give the flower its shape.

I found the act of drawing it really lifted my mood and made me feel a deep connection to nature.

Other entries…

“21st May

Ate lunch outside and saw a lime tree leaf had galls on it. I researched it and found out it was of a mite call Eriophyes Tilliae. It has red finger-like projections protruding out of the top of the leaf.

Cycled along the river after work, saw lots of yellow-flag iris”

“23rd May

Very windy. The cow parsley heads were rocking back and forth like a metal loving headbanger”

“31st May

Cycled up to the allotment and saw a cinnabar moth land on my ragwort I’d been leaving to grow. I got very excited to see it and felt justified for leaving it grow so big next to my lettuce. Hopefully I’ll see some caterpillars on it soon.”

Cinnebar moth which lays its eggs on ragwort and whose black and orange catapillars can be seen chomping through it in summer

I’m going to continue to keep a nature journal as I found it to be quite reflective and it helped me to consider the beauty in the world that bit more. I may invest in a few better pens to draw with as well as a better note book to do it in.

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.


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.


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.