eden river trust walk

I have spent the last two days walking along the Eden. I thought I would experience and remember it as a single flowing stream. But instead it seems many rivers. At Mallerstang below the falls the valley is narrow, with folds and rivulets and short limestone distances that conceal castles. The dark rearing crest of Wild Boar Fell seems part of an entirely different landscape, looking over all 1,200 square miles of the constituency from Blencathra to Bewcastle. After Kirkby Stephen the river is tranquil and measured in its meanderings, at odds with the framing line of the Pennines and the volcanic pikes behind. A sudden wall of pink sandstone at Temple Sowerby seems the setting of an oriental mystery but two miles later, approaching Langwathby, the flood plain is bare and treeless and the gravel scattered with desultory cows. Tonight, before Lazonby, I am sleeping near dark rock-falls and caves.

Eden has given its name to a district. Many of our community groups take their names from the river and its tributaries. It is the water that some of us drink, a landscape we love, a lure for tourists: an artery. But walking along it, I sometimes feel we have abandoned it. From the banks one glimpses the backs of houses, sewage treatment plants, dead-end tracks, slurry tanks. In Hartley, or Morland, the houses look towards the stream and the mill-race. But those are unusual tributaries. The main river often flows behind and apart from the villages. Even accessing the banks feels furtive: that one is discovering something almost like a disused canal.  In places it is only half-accessible, ringed with old barbed wire, touched in places by Japanese knot weed or down half-crumbled sandy cliffs.

Today I was joined in the walk by a grassland expert, an organic dairy farmer, a professor of soil science, a water habitat expert and a man who had fished the river for fifty years. They showed me how sometimes, every mile, the nature of the river changed completely because of a new stone-base or even the barrier formed by a bridge. They let me handle white-clawed crayfish and told me the fish lived only in limestone because they need the calcium for their shell. They explained how the Borrowdale volcanic rock in the Derwent meant water poor in nutrients and filled with oxygen, delighting certain flies who avoided the nutrient-rich Eden. They showed the riffles, which pleased the new-hatched fry, and the pools for the parr and the runs for the adult salmon. They explained the impact of fertiliser, stock, and soil management.  They showed how phosphates had encouraged the algae, which choked the gills of the crayfish and left the three types of lamprey unable to breath above the silt.

But when I heard more about what this meant for farmers – the sixty five thousand pound tanks that need to be built for slurry to keep nitrogen out of the river, the banning of bare fields on the water edge, the emphasis on core sampling and soil analysis, the specific times of year in which fertiliser should be laid, the strict controls on stocking – it looked much less easy. How, when margins are so tight, can farmers be expected to invest so much money and time and research in something whose effect on their farm is often, at least in the short-term, indirect?

What impresses me most about the Eden Rivers Trust is the effort it makes to engage with farmers: Robert Warburton, the Chair, is a farmer; Will and Tom from ERT who accompanied me on the walk are farmers. Hundreds of volunteers are working with the Trust. I came across them on Wednesday counting trout and on Thursday counting crayfish. They remove abandoned objects from the river near Carlisle, and they weed Himalayan balsam from the banks. Most importantly they get things done. At Hoff, for example, I saw a ford which had blocked the movement of fish. The agencies had complained about it for decades. But the ford was the only way of getting the milk wagons in to the dairy farm and new work carried many risks for the river. So the agencies had done nothing. It was ERT who ultimately convinced the farmer, reassured all the agencies, found the contractor, filled out all the paperwork and had the culvert installed in ten days – often working at night without disrupting the milk truck. The fish are now spawning freely in the Hoff again.

My previous walks have taken me over, away from, or high above the river. I have experienced the landscape largely in terms of slopes and trees, boulders and peat. Suddenly I am able to hear its movement. I begin to mark the different geologies, and understand something about the algae and fly, fish and fertiliser. I am learning how (often for very understandable reasons) we have polluted or tried to tame the flow. But what I will remember most is the farmers and volunteers who are daily protecting and preserving this, our river: our Eden.

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