Down a winding farm track and past a gauntlet of barking spaniels, a stretch of brook is beginning to transform itself.
I am standing at its edge six months after Welsh Dee Trust completed the initial phase of work. Boulders have been placed at intervals in the middle of its course. Rivers that haven’t been modified by people often hold such boulders. Welsh Dee Trust has put these ones in—or put them back—so that their bulks will interrupt the water, forcing it to move in new directions. With these changes in flow, gravel will build up in the lee of each boulder, re-sculpting the landscape below the water’s skin. Restoring to the brook the diversity of topography that aquatic wildlife has evolved to depend on.
And I can see the process happening already: a pebbly sandbar lies behind each boulder. For me, it’s an unexpected and completely real bit of magic.
Welsh Dee Trust has also erected fencing, and installed water-gates where crossing points between fields cut through the brook. The water-gates are tooth-like sets of wooden stakes that prevent cows or sheep using the crossing points to bypass the fences and get to the vegetation along the banks. This is essential to the restoration work; without the peril of hungry mouths, plants are free to flourish. They provide new shade, new microclimates. If they droop into the water, this creates yet more habitat for wildlife—more opportunities to hide or to hunt. And as the plants establish and send their roots deeper into the soil, they bind it together. In doing so the banks become more stable, and more resilient in times of heavy rain and fast, powerful flows. More soil is kept out of the brook which would otherwise silt up the water and cause all kinds of havoc for aquatic wildlife, like covering the gravels that trout and salmon need for spawning.
In short, as I stand on the bank, I am looking at a new symbiosis between plantlife, rock, water, time, and human engineering.
I joined Welsh Dee Trust as their comms and social media volunteer in February 2021. Because of the pandemic, and later my Masters, this is the first chance I’ve had to come up to North Wales to meet the team and see their work first-hand. Peter, the CEO, seems as thrilled as I am at the sight of the brook—his workload usually traps him in the office.
Along with Chris (the Restoring River Habitat Programme manager) and Gareth (the Restoring River Habitat project officer), Peter and I climb over a few fences before walking upstream through the adjacent field. The team chats about how enthusiastic the landowner is about restoring her stretch of the brook, but also the barriers to doing more work: a potential reduction in the value of the land; the fear of losing subsidies; the needs of the farmer who grazes livestock on the land; and the risk that neighbours will not be interested in working with Welsh Dee Trust.
‘So it’s kind of like Conservation Monopoly, where you need to try and collect as many neighbouring properties as possible to achieve the goal?’ This suggestion of mine raises laughter, but it’s a serious matter too. Rivers are threads stitching different people and landscapes together. Welsh Dee Trust’s work depends on collaboration, and continuity.
We stop at the next lot of water-gates. My eyes follow the brook further uphill. Hailing as I do from the southeast of England where the brooks that aren’t culverted still feel tame, this one gushes with its own special wildness. Yet the team voice different thoughts. They explain that there should be far more boulders here, and fallen trees which exert their own influence on river hydrology. Tree debris also has a tendency to snag dead leaves and build little islands out of them, in the process becoming harbours to rare invertebrates. Where trees are absent from our rivers, it’s because they haven’t been allowed to grow along the banks, or well-meaning landowners have “tidied” the watercourse.
This brook should also be far wigglier. It’s almost dead-straight from my viewpoint, and further up it’s clear that the bank has been built up higher, with a wall of stones and boulders to keep the water in its place. As I stand in the field next to it, I watch the team wave their arms around. They’re imagining how the brook used to be, and what it could be. Break down that wall there, dig here, step back. Wait.
This is something I never could have seen through my laptop screen. And it’s clear that being out here is immeasurably important for the Welsh Dee Trust team. A special kind of alchemy happens when people get to put their own feet on the land and cast their eyes across it to see more than just the present.
If all goes well, this exact moment is the very beginning of the brook’s wilder future.