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Riverlands project at Porlock Vale

Sweeping view of Bossington and Porlock
Sweeping view of Bossington and Porlock | © National Trust Images/Ross Hoddinott

The Riverlands project at Porlock Vale on Exmoor aims to create river and catchment areas that are clean, healthy and rich in wildlife. Find out how we’re reverting river courses to their natural path to help stop flash flooding. Discover how beavers and water voles are being re-introduced and how they help create a diverse habitat for plants and other wildlife.

The Riverlands project

Currently only 14% of England’s rivers are in good health, with 13% of freshwater and wetland species now threatened with extinction in the UK. We're setting out to reverse this trend through our work.

Since 2018, Holnicote has been delivering a flagship Riverlands project, taking a catchment-based, landscape scale approach to develop alternative ways of managing land and water; ensuring it is resilient and nature rich, whilst remaining productive. This has been undertaken in partnership with many local farm tenants and volunteers and with the full support of the local community.

Working with partners

The Porlock project is part of the Interreg 2 Seas Co-Adapt programme. We’ve been working with European partners since 2019 to restore natural processes that are more resilient to the impacts of climate change and provides benefits for people and nature. We also work closely with the Environment Agency.

Rationale for Riverlands work

Over hundreds of years many rivers have been simplified and concentrated into straight channels that have become disconnected from the land around them. These modified rivers move water and sediment rapidly through the river catchment, providing no buffer against flooding or droughts.

Our work at Holnicote is underpinned by over 13 years of monitoring covering everything from water flow and quality to soil health, groundwater, ecological monitoring and high-resolution drone imagery, helping us understand the challenges, test new ways of working and provide an evidence base to inform and to scale up efforts on a much bigger scale, with national impact.

Beaver enclosure 18 months after beavers were introduced, Holnicote Estate, Somerset
Beaver enclosure at Holnicote Estate 18 months after beavers were introduced | © National Trust Images/Nick Upton

A natural route for rivers

We piloted a pioneering project to revert rivers to their natural path before any human involvement, called Stage 0. The plan reverted a tributary of the Aller river to its original course before human intervention. Following the success of the pilot project, work was carrried out over 33 acres (13 hectares) on the main River Aller. The first stage was careful earthworks creating shallowly skimmed areas to reset the valley bottom and natural river flow.

Developing ecological diversity

Earthmoving equipment was used to allow a more natural flow to connect a stream and wetland system. Following this, habitat restoration was ‘fast tracked’ by using woody debris and key plant species to help develop more hydrological and ecological diversity on the site. This creates the kind of conditions that might have existed before – prior to the river system being heavily managed, with the river itself modified into a single channel. It also allows for more water to be stored in the water table to help in times of drought.

Floodplain wildflower seeds such as ragged robin, devil’s-bit scabious and meadowsweet were sown and 25,000 native trees such as willow, bird cherry and black poplar were planted to further enrich the habitat.

Latest project updates

Winter 2023

Immersive soundwalks launch

Inspired by the National Trust’s work on the estate, novelist Ellen Wiles has written and produced  two immersive audio story experiences: Riverlandia and Buzzard View. Narrators include Gemma Whelan and Spencer Jones.They can be accessed here.

Riverlandia is a fictional sound story, told by ten human and non-human characters living in a changing river valley, including a beaver, a dragonfly, a fish, a tree and a couple of humans. Inspired by the ecological work of the Riverlands project. 

Buzzard View is a literary soundwalk, following a beautiful loop route around the Holnicote Estate, following its landscape, history and ecology. It takes you through woodland, moorland and coast, over a beacon and past buildings old and new. You will encounter stories of past inhabitantsm including the former owners of the estate and regenerative farmers living on the esate today. Buzzard view can be listened to insitu or as a vritual experience. 

Our partners

Fundraising Regulator

The independent regulator of charitable fundraising in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

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Green Recovery Challenge Fund

This project is funded by the government’s Green Recovery Challenge Fund. The fund is being delivered by The National Lottery Heritage Fund in partnership with Natural England and the Environment Agency.

Interreg 2 Seas Co-Adapt programme

Riverlands is part funded by Interreg. This programme aims to increase awareness on the potential consequences of climate change and to enable stakeholders to develop a collective approach to be integrated in spatial planning and innovative solutions for environmental and economic resilience and integrated management of coastal zones.

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Environment Agency

Environmental Agency is a public body sponsored by the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs, working to create better places for people and wildlife, and support sustainable development.

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