Hidden Beauty

When you look upon a riverbed it can seem pretty drab, lifeless and uninteresting. But if you could take a pebble in your hand and somehow magnify its surface so that the microbes that covered it were visible, you may well be surprised by the beauty of what you saw. For throughout the slimy layer of life that covers the pebble you will find diatoms, a very pretty type of algae.

245311203_92a6a90302_b.jpgA boring brown riverbed? Photo by Matt Smith / CC BY

Like most plants and algae diatoms photosynthesise, deriving their energy from sunlight. They differ however in that they have yellow-brown rather than green chloroplasts, which contributes to the general brownish colour of riverbeds. The slimy layer in which most river diatoms make their home is known as a biofilm. This film coats most surfaces in rivers and lakes, and is comprised not only of diatoms but also a myriad of other microorganisms such as bacteria, protists, fungi and worms. Numerous invertebrate species such as certain mayfly larvae and freshwater snails graze upon biofilms, and are in turn prey for predators such as brown trout or dippers.

Diatoms are not restricted to freshwater ecosystems, and are in fact very widespread. Vast quantities float as plankton in the ocean. However they don’t necessarily need much water, and will live wherever there are moist soils or damp surfaces. There are an estimated 100,000 species worldwide.

Two plates of diatoms from Ernsrt Haeckel’s Kunstformen der Natur (Art Forms of Nature; 1904)

While diatoms are very abundant, they have an uncommon beauty. They come in a wide variety of symmetrical forms and have ornate and patterned cell walls. This is why they became a popular subject of study for those who pioneered the use of early microscopes. Their striking appearance led to their inclusion in Ernst Haeckel’s Kunstformen der Natur (Art Forms of Nature; 1904), a book that displays a collection of the famous biologist’s most beautiful drawings and watercolours.

davechandlerphoto1anotherworldOne of Dr Dave Chandler’s diatoms taken from his laboratory experiments (false colour image).

There is also a more mundane reason to study diatoms. Their communities change in response to human impacts such as pollution, as some species are more able to withstand contaminated waters than others. Environmentalists can therefore collect diatoms from a river and compare what species they have found to what should be growing if there wasn’t any pollution. The difference in the diatom community then gives us a good clue as to how polluted the river is. Dr Dave Chandler investigated the impact detergents had on diatom communities during his PhD at the University of Sheffield. During his research he took pictures of the diatoms he kept in his experiments, not because he needed to for his studies, but simply because they made such beautiful subjects.


Another of Dr Dave Chandler’s diatoms (false colour image).


12 months on

Our Living Heritage of the River Don LHRD masterlogo_RGBproject has now been up and running for 12 months and what a year it’s been!

We have three fantastic members of staff who, along with our first apprentice have been busy out and about motivating people and doing a great job of clearing litter from the riverbanks, re-building stiles and fences and generally making the river a more welcoming place to visit.  All of our volunteer opportunities are available on our events calendar on our website.

We also connected with young offenders who through a series of workshops painted a stunning mural on a heavily graffitied bridge in Doncaster.   Look out for others over the next couple of years.

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Our team have also been getting local youngsters interested in their local rivers with our River Guardians project.  The kids have been looking at bugs and beasties found in the river as well as the surrounding habitat and we have lots of activities to help them learn and inspire their interest.  At local fairs we have been having fun with our giant salmon and weirs game and badge making is always a sure way to interest the kids as we’re talking to the adults!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOur programme of works to install fish passage over 5 weirs in the River Don is now complete and complements a programme of fish passage work undertaken by others on the Don like Canal & River Trust and the Environment Agency.  The works began at the end of July and were completed at the end of December, thanks to good weather conditions.

Don Valley Way_marker_artwork

We have also been working hard on the Don Valley Way, a new walking trail that follows the River Don from Doncaster to Sheffield. It’s 29 miles long and has a series of smaller, circular heritage walks leading off the main trail for those not interested in walking the whole 29 miles!  We will be launching the trail and its dedicated website along with the accompanying audiotrails later in 2017.

20160725_084231To entice you further to visit the river Josh, our apprentice has been laying geocaches designed to help our wonderful salmon trackables to navigate the river and back to the sea.

Geocaching is a treasure hunt that enables anyone with a smartphone to take part (more about Geocaching here)

We’re looking forward to another inspiring year with our fantastic team, there’s a lot going on – check out our calendar for events and activities near you and we look forward to seeing you when we’re out and about!

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Introducing our new Director

Some thoughts from Dr Ed Shaw, the new Director of the Trust

Ed resizedIt’s been a very fruitful year for the Trust. The Living Heritage of the Don project is now in full swing, with five weirs having been modified to increase the ability of migrating salmon to reach spawning grounds in Sheffield and further upstream. Things are falling into place and all being well it won’t be long now before salmon begin to naturally recolonise the catchment. Furthermore two new members of staff have been employed to run interesting and rewarding events that are good for both people and rivers, such as riverbank clear-ups and school sessions.

Yet there is much much more that can be done to improve the rivers and streams of our catchment. This is why the Trust has decided to appoint a Director, a position I am privileged to have been able to take on. The priority of the role will be to develop new worthwhile projects and apply for funding to ensure the Trust goes from strength to strength and continues to make our catchment a better place. I’m not a new face at the Trust; I’ve been involved since I was a student and I have witnessed the DCRT evolve from little more than an idea into the team of dedicated and passionate staff and Trustees it is today.

While in some ways we live in alarming times, with the threat of climate change, an increasingly resource hungry world, and shrinking budgets, for a number of reasons these are also exciting times. Governments are waking up to the fact that the restoration and better management of ecosystems, often at a low cost, can provide many benefits such as a reduction in flooding, improved water quality, increased carbon storage and good habitat for wildlife. At the same time technology is advancing at a breathtaking speed, equipping us to improve, manage and monitor our rivers and land more effectively. The digital age has enabling the unprecedented collation, synthesis and sharing of information and data, and this is propelling advances in ecological knowledge, and we are now in a golden age of discovery. Our society is better informed than it’s ever been, with institutions like the University of Sheffield, the internet, and the media providing more opportunities for people to learn, which is probably the reason that there is a great appetite for projects that enhance the environment. And to cap it all there is the good news story of the dramatic ecological recovery of the Don, Dearne and Rother in the last few decades. All this means that I am cautiously optimistic for the future. As the new Director I’m looking forward to playing my part at the Trust and helping make a positive difference to the rivers and streams in our catchment.





Six months on …

Today marks exactly six months since I joined Don Catchment Rivers Trust. It feels like only yesterday that I met everyone for the first time. It has been an absolutely fantastic time and I cannot wait to see what other marvels await me in the rest of my apprenticeship. I have already done so much that it is hard for me to comprehend that there is anything else for me to learn, but every day I get proven wrong and I learn something brand new whether it be a fact, a skill or a simple life lesson.

I have learned so much information and developed so many new skills that I never thought I would get. I now have the ability to build and repair a stile, interact with the public (which I used to be scared of doing due to stage fright) and I’m even a qualified first aider now! I can now identify a whole bunch of different wildlife, some of which I had never even heard of before coming here.


I have met amazing people and seen some absolutely incredible views that I wish everyone could see. I have seen volunteers turn a dumping ground into a beautiful trail that feels safe to walk down. I have seen the progress of the fish passes being built and it truly is remarkable.


It makes me happy knowing that I am contributing to help change the environment for the better, not only for all the wildlife but for us as people as well. I strongly believe that I have truly found what I want to do for the rest of my life. I feel so enlightened walking down the trails besides the River Don and seeing all of the natural beauty that all of my colleagues and I are helping preserve.

I would like to thank all of you for giving me this opportunity.

Josh Laidlow
Apprentice – Living Heritage of the River Don


“Does this mean I shouldn’t eat any more salmon sandwiches?”

“Does this mean I shouldn’t eat any more salmon sandwiches?” exclaimed one of our young ‘River Guardians’ during one of our school visits for the Living Heritage of the River Don project. Explaining to people about the return of migrating salmon is by far the best part of my role as Project Assistant for DCRT.


Sally watching the Salmon run in the Cairngorms, Scotland… coming soon to Sheffield!


Fish would have been a large part of the diet of early settlers of the River Don who soon learnt to harness and control the power of the river. Weirs were constructed to power mills, wetlands drained to control floods, waterways altered to ease navigation and reservoirs created to supply an ever-growing population with drinking water. These dramatic changes to the flow of the River Don and it’s tributaries exhausted salmon as they tried to migrate up the river to their spawning grounds.

In 1689, large basket-like traps, called ‘hecks’, were installed on the weirs to catch salmon attempting to jump the weirs.  At this point salmon sold at local markets at around 2p per kg and were considered a staple of most people’s diets. Back then, our young River Guardian may have eaten salmon sandwiches up to three times a day.

The trapping of salmon for food, combined with the exploitation of the river to fuel industry, meant salmon were unable to migrate up the river and disappeared from the Don by 1750. Over the next few hundred years, sewage and pollution continued to fill the spoiled river, drowning out natural life and helping the Don win the title of “Europe’s most polluted river” by the 1980’s.


Specimens from Doncaster Museum: An Atlantic salmon Salmo Salar and a tracking tag found on a rare, stray salmon that made its way to the polluted River Don in the 1970s.


Since then, law and legislation has been passed to protect the rivers and changes to industry have seen the rivers of the Don Catchment recover. Dedicated charities, organisations and volunteer groups protect, restore and re-connect the river and its surrounding habitats. The return of rare and stunning wildlife – otters, kingfishers and migratory fish are proof of this outstanding deep clean!

Sally Hyslop
Project Assistant – Living Heritage of the River Don

Three down, two to go!

Bailey Construction have completed the first of the Larinier fish passes which is located at Steelbank weir.


The baffles in the bottom flight of the pass
The view from the top of the pass with the resting pool at the bottom

The baffles on the inside of the pass are what makes this a ‘Larinier’ pass, named after the man who invented them.  The baffles disrupt the flow of water, making it easier for the fish to ascend the pass.  There is a  resting pool in between the two flights which is to allow the fish to rest before attempting to ascend the second flight.

They have also completed the second easement which is located at Kelham Island, just off Ball Street bridge

Ball St bridge with the easement

The easement is formed of concrete which is set in to the face of the weir.  A notch is cut in the crest of the weir to allow the water to flow down the easement



Work is still progressing at Brightside weir with the base being poured and the walls being poured this week.

Upper flight at Brightside

14 tyres, 9 traffic cones, 3 trolleys …

On Saturday 15th September 2016 Don Catchment Rivers Trust led their latest volunteer clean-up day by Chapel on the Bridge, Rotherham.

Chapel of our Lady on the Bridge, Rotherham.

The Trust noticed an accumulation of rubbish in the river when out and about planning the route for the Don Valley Way trail. There aren’t many areas in Rotherham town centre that the river is both visible and accessible, so we were keen to do a volunteer clean –up here.

The accumulation of tyres waiting to be pulled out

Part of setting up a clean-up event is to find out who owns the stretch of river, who has responsibility for it, and also talk to any local groups in the area with an interest. On this occasion we were fortunate that Chapel on the Bridge has a dedicated ‘Friends of’ group that had been looking to get the stretch of river cleaned up for a while. Sometimes rubbish in the river is no-one in particulars responsibility, and this is where the ‘Living Heritage of the River Don’ project is often able to help and make a positive impact on a local area.

So, we organised our volunteer clean-up day to coincide with a Friends of the Chapel open day, and they very kindly kept us fuelled with tea and parkin!

Tea and parkin time!

The team pulled out 14 car tyres, 9 traffic cones, 3 shopping trolleys, 2 crowd barriers, a microwave, and a suitcase as well as half a dozen bags of litter from the banks. Rotherham Council agreed to pick up the rubbish on their route, so we took it all up to the street. It was really interesting to see people’s reaction to seeing it all – some people took photos, some people said ‘thank you’, some people expressed their anger at the rubbish. And someone threw a half eaten bag of chips into the river!

Several shopping trolleys were dragged out of the river.
The haul of rubbish and litter from the 50m section of the Don

As usual we would like to say a big thank you to all the volunteers that came to help. Also thank you to the volunteers at Chapel on the Bridge for being so welcoming, and to Rotherham Council for taking the rubbish away for us

If you would like to volunteer at the next clean-up day please do get in touch with the Trust on volunteer@dcrt.org.uk or phone 01302 796173.