50 for the Future – Rewild and restore floodplains

Our recent publication, 50 for the Future, lists 50 things that we believe should happen in Scotland over the next 50 years to benefit both people and wildlife. In this week's 50 for the Future article, Anne McCall, Regional Director for RSPB Scotland, discusses the benefits of floodplain restoration and how this is best achieved through partnership working. 


Number 14: Rewild and restore several thousand hectares of floodplains along Scotland's major rivers by allowing the natural cycle of flooding in adjacent wetlands and marshes.


Sometimes it's difficult to understand just how much humans have changed the landscape until you have taken a bird’s eye view. This is particularly true with regard to Scotland's river systems. Standing by a riverbank, it can be difficult to get a full picture of the impact that people have had on a river’s ecology and how it interacts with the landscape if flows through. But get some height using aerial photography or a drone, and the extent of these changes are revealed. 

Step back in time using historic maps and changes wrought on a landscape over centuries start to show – meanders replaced by straight channels, marshes by drained farmland, and natural river banks by concrete walls and earth bunds. This matters to conservationists because a naturally functioning river creates a wealth of habitats alongside it. Wet grassland supports breeding waders like lapwings and redshanks that were once widespread but are now in serious decline, while fens and reedbeds provide homes to specialists like bearded tits and marsh harriers. Canalise a river in an engineered channel and you lose all of this. All of this and more in fact, because functioning river systems don’t just benefit wildlife.

Aerial photos show the canalised nature of the Dubbs Water, to the southwest of Lochwinnoch RSPB Reserve

A naturally functioning floodplain does just what its name suggests – it holds water on an expanse of land at times of flood, removing the 'flashy' nature of rivers and making it easier to predict how they will behave. If we work with nature, this can be an incredibly important tool for managing flood risk by holding water before it reaches our homes and industries. Perhaps our best example is Insh Marshes RSPB Reserve in Speyside, which has been estimated to save millions of pounds in extra flood defence and maintenance costs for Aviemore. Of course Insh is a very special place and there are few floodplains in Scotland that offer similar expanses of floodplain habitats, so we can’t replicate this scale of solution everywhere. The question is, can we take lessons and inspiration from places like Inch and apply them elsewhere?

Well, the good news is that in Scotland the legislation in the Flood Risk Management Act promotes natural flood management, so now Government agencies and Local Authorities are planning to include more of these techniques around the country. The bad news is that we are still not seeing the joined up thinking or the resources being applied to make this a reality. 

All too often, the fallback position is one of relying on engineering approaches to flood management and looking to hard engineered solutions to managing our rivers for recreation and regeneration. Complexities with liability for managing flood defences in Scotland don’t help, with private landowners shouldering the burden of maintaining defences on their land outwith built up areas. This results in a lack of strategic planning and investment in natural flood risk management and a desperate lack of investment in long term sustainable solutions.

Insh Marshes © Andy Hay (rspb-images.com)

It is this disparate nature of river management that many, including the RSPB and the Scottish Wildlife Trust, are trying to address through partnership working. All too often people have created administrative boundaries that bear no relation to ecological ones, but by working at a catchment or sub-catchment scale we can change that.

We are delighted that the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) recently awarded development funding to the Garnock Connections Landscape Partnership – an initiative focused on understanding and celebrating the historical uses of the River Garnock and addressing some of the challenges that current and historic use poses for diffuse pollution, water management and wildlife in the catchment. By working together to restore wetlands, remeander river courses and use natural habitats to control diffuse pollution, the partnership hopes to take important steps in restoring the functionality of this river catchment. What’s really exciting is the opportunity we see for integrating historical projects, training, volunteering and access opportunities into this catchment work. This is what we need to do to make landscape-scale conservation effective and it's what makes partnership working at this scale so satisfying. 

One place where we are already seeing the benefits of this approach is in the Inner Forth – the part of the catchment at the top of the tidal range.  Here, the disconnect of the river from its floodplain has meant loss of intertidal habitats over centuries. Agricultural intensification and industrialisation of the floodplain has meant the loss of wetland systems that would once have been connected to the river. Our Futurescape presents a long term vision to address this through habitat restoration and creation and the first steps in making this a reality have been realised through the Inner Forth Landscape Initiative – a 5-year partnership project funded by HLF. Together, the partners have found places where habitats can be restored or managed to ensure wildlife has a network of wetlands in the landscape and as a result the partners are managing wetlands at Cambus Pools and Black Devon Wetlands to bring more water and more wildlife back to the banks of the Forth. 

Restoration of what we’ve lost is critical, but we also have to ensure things don’t get worse as a result of poor land management or bad development decisions. I was pleased to be able to attend the recent celebration event at the Scottish Parliament to mark the fact that Stirling and Clackmannanshire Council have been given the go-ahead to develop an ambitious City Deal programme. There is much to support and welcome in the deal, but we will be working with the Council to try and find an alternative to the potentially damaging barrage proposal currently being put forward. Sitting downstream from a Special Area of Conservation (important for salmon and lamprey) and upstream from a Special Protection Area (important for large populations of wintering birds) a barrage which threatens to significantly alter the natural flow of the river is at odds with the good work being done across Scotland to restore and protect our rivers. 

Let us know your thoughts by emailing thefuture@scottishwildlifetrust.org.uk or Tweet @ScotWildlife using #50fortheFuture

 Anne McCall is Regional Director for RSPB Scotland.

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In this week's 50 for the Future article, Anne McCall discusses the benefits of floodplain restoration and how this is best achieved through partnership working. 

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