Riverlands: how we keep our rivers flowing

River Derwent

We all rely on rivers. For centuries they’ve been the veins that run through our cities and countryside: providing water for us to drink and grow crops, powering our industries and providing us with tranquil places to explore and escape.

Today, though, our rivers are in trouble - and so is the wildlife that depends on them. Intensive farming, pressures from development and the effects of climate change have all taken their toll, and now only 14% of England’s rivers are in good health. This means that some of our most important plants, insects, animals and birds are at risk.

That’s why we’ve started our most ambitious waterways project ever: to bring our rivers, streams, brooks and becks flowing back to life.

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We’re starting with some of the UK’s most precious rivers, ranging from the Derwent in Cumbria to the steep, narrow streams of Porlock Vale in Somerset. The work includes helping to slow the flow of water and alleviate flooding, repairing banks, creating new habitats and tackling the rise of invasive non-native species.

We’ll also be working with local communities to help them rediscover and reconnect with their rivers – as spaces for leisure and activity, to socialise, or simply take a walk beside the water and clear their minds.

We’re already hard at work to reverse the fortunes of our rivers – read on to find out what we’re up to across the country.

Beaver swimming in the river

Reintroducing beavers to help rivers manage climate change 

We've released a pair of beavers at Holnicote in Somerset to improve flood management and support wildlife on our rivers. The beavers will help make areas of the river more resilient to climate change and the extremes of weather it will bring. The dams they create will hold water in dry periods, help to lessen flash-flooding downstream, reduce erosion and improve water quality.

Water voles are among the creatures the project at Holnicote will help

River Aller, Exmoor in Somerset

Reconnecting our rivers and streams to the surrounding landscape guards against severe weather and attracts a greater variety of plants and animals. In what is the first project of its kind in the UK, we're trialling groundbreaking work to protect our rivers from climate change and flooding and protect wildlife. We've partnered with the Environment Agency and European programme Interreg 2 Seas Co-Adapt to restore a tributary of the river Aller, which passes through the Holnicote Estate.

Visitors sat by the river at Morden Hall Park, London

The Upper Bure, Norfolk 

In Norfolk we’re creating places for learning, keeping fit and creating memories – all on the banks of the meandering River Bure. Bure is a chalk stream, an internationally rare habitat, and has been badly affected by land drainage. We’re bringing it back to health by restoring precious grassland and floodplains, and creating 9km of new footpaths so that it can be easily accessed by local communities. Through arts projects we’ll tell the story of this historic river, ensuring it is valued and enjoyed for years to come.

Rushing river and waterfall on Exmoor

Porlock Vale streams, Somerset 

Porlock Vale lies on the wild northern edge of Exmoor – a landscape of woods, streams and farmland cut through by steep gullies and combes. The waterways that flow through these confined sites respond rapidly to rainfall, and pose a flood risk to settlements downstream. We’re working to slow the flow of these streams by reconnecting them with the floodplain - allowing the wider landscape to absorb the effects of the weather. This will also improve conditions for wildlife that lives in the streams such as eels and brook lampreys, as well as otters and the resident bat population that forages and breeds nearby.

Stone houses on the River Conwy in North Wales

Conwy Valley, North Wales

In Snowdonia’s Conwy Valley, rivers travel through busy tourist towns, hillside farms and lush meadows, feeding the landscape as they go. Sadly, extreme flooding has taken its toll, and the waterways that were once rich in salmon and trout are now in poor condition. We’re taking action to restore Conwy’s declining wildlife populations and protect its communities from the devastating effects of flooding. We'll plant trees and create natural dams to slow the flow of the waterways and build an environment that’s more resilient to change.

Otter at Stackpole

The Derwent, Cumbria

The rivers we look after provide shelter for a myriad of wildlife and plants. None more so than the River Derwent in the Lake District, which is home to otters, Atlantic salmon and vendace – a rare freshwater fish. These cherished species have struggled to cope with increasingly polluted waters and severe floods in recent years, and urgently need our care in order to thrive. With the help of local people, we’re repairing habitats and improving water quality to protect the river’s much-loved residents.

River Bollin flowing under tree canopy

River Bollin, Cheshire

The rivers Bollin and Goyt meander along the southern fringes of Manchester, flowing through many of our places along the way. Over the years these watercourses have become clogged by invasive species and begun to suffer the effects of declining water quality – but that’s all about to change. Through the Riverlands project we’re tackling the influx of non-native species on the Bollin, and creating new wetland habitats to encourage native wildlife such as brown trout and Atlantic salmon. We’re also working with local farmers to manage the surrounding landscapes with good river health in mind.

" Rivers are the lifeblood of our landscapes but many of them – and the wider landscapes that feed into them – are in desperate need of repair."
- Hilary McGrady, Director General
Exploring the river with a stick at Lydford Gorge, Devon

Restoring a healthy, beautiful, natural environment 

We face many challenges in the years ahead, and big questions in the historic and natural environment, but we can't tackle these alone. This strategy will see us working more collaboratively with a range of partners to explore new approaches and solutions.