“Any otter poo?” asked Craven farmer Philip Metcalfe, as he fixed a fence by the side of the road earlier this month.
“No, but there was a white clawed crayfish and a bullhead,” replied Environment Agency officer Iain McDonell, who had wound down his car window to talk.
Agency staff had that morning been taking water quality samples in Otterburn Beck near Mr Metcalfe’s farm.
“There were lots of bullheads when I was a kid,” said the farmer, “but I’ve not seen one for a long time.”
The two men have known each other for nearly ten years, working closely together on the ‘Upper Aire Land Management and Habitat Project’. Such has been the success of the project that expectancy is high in Otterburn for a return of the otter. This most playful of mammals has been seen recently a mile and a half away at Bell Busk.
I was privy to the conversation because I was being given a tour of the project, in order to promote an objective in the new Yorkshire Dales National Park Management Plan 2019-2024.
Objective C3 of the plan is ‘to improve the condition of the Aire, Eden, Lune, Ribble, Swale, Ure and Wharfe, so that at least 90% of all rivers achieve good ecological status by 2027’. At the moment, only 47% of rivers in the National Park are classed as being in good condition.
The 2027 date comes from the EU Water Framework Directive, which was introduced in the year 2000 and brought into UK law some years later.
The ‘47% good’ figure made sense to me only once it was explained that rivers and their tributaries are split into area-based units called ‘water bodies’. The Upper Aire, for instance, is made up of 19 water bodies. In the National Park as a whole there are 122 (although some water bodies overlap the boundary). Each is ranked as having bad, poor, moderate, good or high ecological status.
“We have set a very ambitious [management plan] target,” said Claire Tunningley, a catchment co-ordinator at the agency.
“There are 560 water bodies in Yorkshire. There’s is much to do, and it will take a long time for the ecology to recover.”
“But we are on the pathway to ‘good’,” continued Claire. “Things are on the bounce. There is definitely a lot to be optimistic about.”
This brings us back to the Upper Aire project. I was taken to Alan Thwaite’s cattle and sheep farm at Crake Moor. A stream runs under buildings in the main farmyard. In the past, it would always flood the yard during heavy rainfall.
As part of the project, however, ‘leaky dams’ were installed on a pasture through which several sykes run. These dams have slowed the flow and helped vegetation stay rooted. The result has been no more flooding in the farmyard, even in the heavy rains of 2015. Elsewhere on the farm, river banks have been planted with trees and fenced off, while different soil management techniques – such as on when and how much muck to spread, for instance – have been implemented.
A total of 80 farmers have so far engaged with the project, all of them doing similar work to stop sediment being washed away, and planting trees to take up moisture and protect river banks while creating habitat for wildlife.
Mr Metcalfe, 53, was the first farmer to get involved.
“It seems to have taken off remarkably well round here,” he said.
“I think the uptake by farmers has surprised the wildlife people. Farmers have a bad reputation – it’s all ‘take, take, take’ from the land – but they realise they have to do their bit. The financial encouragement has helped. We don’t get paid, but costs are covered. I just wish this had begun twenty years ago, so I could have seen the rewards before giving over. The first trees planted eight years ago are taking off now.”
It was in the beck just opposite his Otterburn Hall farm that Dave Barber, the third member of the Environment Agency present that day, carried out an invertebrate sample. It was a pretty simple test. He kicked at stones in the beck for three minutes. Then he put in a net to scoop up some debris.
“We’re in luck,” he said, genuinely excited. There in the net was the bullhead and the white clawed crayfish (so threatened in the Dales by the invasive American signal crayfish), alongside case caddis and stonefly larvae.
The Upper Aire project appears to be working and in future the EA will resurvey some of the water bodies in the catchment to reassess their ecological status. Surely, it can’t be long before the otters come back to Otterburn.
Please watch this space in the next few weeks for Part Two – when I’ll be reporting in a bit more detail about how the Environment Agency assesses water quality in the National Park.
**This article was first published in the Craven Herald & Pioneer – THE VOICE OF THE DALES SINCE 1853 – on Thursday, 26 September 2019.