The volunteers working to improve the River Ribble
PUBLISHED: 00:00 08 October 2019
Hundreds of men, women and children are helping to improve one of Lancashire’s major assets – the River Ribble.
Being confronted with a section of the River Ribble full of dead fish had a profound effect on Philip Lord. Suddenly, the Whitewell angler, from Cow Ark in Bowland, realised just how much damage pollution was still doing to the environment he loved. He decided it was time for action.
Philip and a group of other concerned fishermen set up an organisation that grew into the Ribble Rivers Trust, a charity which has spent the last 20 years helping to transform 1,600 miles of desperately polluted rivers and streams in the Ribble catchment area.
That small group has grown into one of the north's most successful environmental groups with a staff of more than 20 and in excess of 600 volunteers - men, women and children who spend their spare time planting trees, picking litter and checking water quality and the creatures that live in it.
Great attention has also been paid to the surrounding areas with 200,000 trees planted. Oaks, alders, aspen, rowan and hazel not only help stabilise and shade river banks but also provide valuable habitat for birds and small mammals.
There have been some remarkable success stories but no one pretends the job is done. 'We've been going for just 20 years but there is 500 years of damage to be undone,' says Philip, the trust chairman. While the Industrial Revolution turned many Lancashire rivers into little more than open sewers, the 21st century has brought its own set of problems such as farm pollution and invasive species. The ever changing landscape means they can never rest.
'There are some really great things going on,' says Jack Spees, the trust's chief executive. 'We are definitely going in the right direction but it can sometimes feel like pushing water uphill!'
The trust's big idea for the immediate future is a campaign to connect to as many of the 1.5 million people who live adjacent to the Ribble catchment as possible. The flagship project is called Ribble Life Together and it aims to instill a sense of responsibility among people who care about the countryside.
It involves art as well as science with sketching workshops, films, open days and river walks. A 'Rivers in the Classroom' programme also means that thousands of primary school pupils have learned about freshwater science as well as using the rivers for artistic projects. Its success was demonstrated when Jack and the team recently set up a display involving a water pump for river water at Chipping Show. 'I offered to show it in operation to a youngster from the school at Ribchester but he told me he already knew all about it because they'd done it in class!' says Jack.
The lack of salmon in the river system has been a major cause of concern for environmentalists and anglers. Before the Industrial Revolution thousands were caught every year but now they are few and far between and the vast majority that are caught are returned to continue their journey to spawning grounds.
Drought, floods and water abstraction may be factors in their rise and fall but no one knows for sure. However, notable successes have included major schemes creating fish passes which allow salmon to move upriver without fighting their way over weirs.
'One of the major projects was through the centre of Burnley where we installed two fish passes. This was a really big project,' said Jack. 'We also made big improvements to Colne Water but we didn't think we would see salmon return for a decade.
'They were back within three or four years.'
There has been great success reviving the otter population, too. Better water quality and a reduction in their rival, the invasive mink, means the trust no longer monitor otter numbers as stringently as before.
Not all new arrivals have been so welcome. American signal crayfish are the grey squirrels of our rivers, laying waste to anything they can eat, including fish eggs. This aquatic army also carries a virus that kills our native species. Incredibly, there have been examples on the Ribble of people introducing the invader into the river so they can harvest them for their barbecues. There have also been reports off the estuary of Chinese mitten crabs, officially one of the world's 100 worst invasive species.
Imported plants, such as Himalayan balsam, are also a major problem. 'But the one scaring everyone is the giant hogweed that has a toxic sap,' says Jack. 'You can never stop trying to tackle it. It had been isolated around South Ribble but Storm Desmond meant its seeds travelled further down river.' It's a monster that can grow to 14 feet and the sap causes blisters and scars.
The absence of eels in the rivers has also been a cause for concern, not helped by the illegal trade in their young, known as glass eels. They are a delicacy in parts of the Far East and, pound for pound, selling them illegally is more lucrative than selling cocaine.
During the last 20 years, the trust has built up many partnerships with like-minded organisations such as the Wildlife Trust but, perhaps, the most important relationship is with the farming community.
A lot of time and effort has gone into working with farmers because run-off from fertiliser and animal waste has had a major impact on the health of our rivers. 'Farmers don't want to damage the environment,' says Philip. 'They either don't realise the consequences of what they were doing or they were forced into it because of economics.
'As a species, we are always inventing new things often without knowing the consequences. For instance, no one knew about the impact of DDT until all the otters started to disappear.'
Project officers employed by the trust often have an agricultural background that gives them credibility with the farming community.
One of the more surprising facts is that the trust's work has had a direct impact on the beaches at Blackpool. Run-off from fields high in the river system runs down river past Lytham and across to the golden sands. Fencing off riverbanks from livestock can help prevent this and it was one reason why the beaches often failed cleanliness tests. That is starting to change.
While there are encouraging signs that people in some areas are getting the message about litter, plastic continues to be a ticking bomb in the rivers network. 'All our rivers are horrifically polluted with micro-plastics,' says Jack. A friend recently sent him a picture of a piece of plastic he'd removed from the gut of a tinned sardine. 'We are busy fixing old problems as new ones like this arise.'
Although the Ribble Rivers Trust and organisations like them are clearing up the mess made by centuries of ignorance, neglect and inaction, the amount of cash provided to them by the government is well under five per cent of its turnover.
It means the trust must rely on donations, fundraising, legacies and grants. Most of the major projects have been aided by the EU or the National Lottery. What happens post-Brexit is anyone's guess but it would be an environmental disaster to let organisations like the Ribble Rivers Trust die from lack of funds. 'European money and Lottery funding has been vital in tackling some of our biggest problems,' says Jack.
'Three years ago you had to explain what a rivers trust was. Our increased focus on involving people means that is really changing. The volunteering scene is fantastic and very rewarding. This region has a growing movement of people who really want to make a difference.'
To find out more about the Ribble Rivers Trust or to join its band of volunteers, go to ribbletrust.org.uk.