A river restoration project involving academics at Abertay University has won a top UK-wide award that recognises work to improve the natural environment.
The restoration of the Rottal Burn, a tributary of the River South Esk in Angus, was awarded the prestigious 2023 UK River Prize following a decade-long project to return the body of water to a more naturalised state.
Partners on the project include River South Esk Catchment Partnership, Esk Rivers and Fisheries Trust, and a team from Abertay University led by Dr Rebecca Wade, Senior Lecturer in the School of Applied Sciences.
The work began in 2012 and involved the reinstatement of natural meander bends, which were previously straightened out in the 1830s for agricultural reasons.
The re-meandering project doubled the channel length to 1200m, creating a new confluence to the River South Esk and re-connecting the river to its floodplain and nearby wetlands. Over 2000 native trees were also planted in the area at the time.
Returning the Rottal Burn from a straight channel to a more natural form has slowed the flow of the water in the channel, a natural flood management measure which reduces the risk of flooding downstream.
The project has also increased biodiversity both in channel and on land. This was a key outcome for the project which aimed to enhance the capacity of the river to support functional populations of Atlantic salmon and trout and to eventually provide a habitat for endangered freshwater pearl mussels, which were previously impacted by the fast flow in the straightened river.
Dr Rebecca Wade said:
The Rottal Burn restoration has been a truly ground-breaking project with collaboration and partnership working at its core so I’m pleased to see it get the recognition it deserves. It has delivered multiple, tangible benefits which are not only felt locally but contribute to global outcomes as well. Habitat and species restoration, contribution to natural flood management and increased carbon storage are just a few examples of what the restoration has achieved, benefitting both people and wildlife in the local area and beyond.
Abertay researchers began monitoring the site shortly after the restoration was completed in 2012 and this has supported multiple student projects which collectively provide a broad evidence base for the restoration benefits. The projects have ranged in topic but a key focus has been monitoring the morphological and ecological change as the system has matured over the years.
The restoration has also contributed to many local and national biodiversity strategies and action plan objectives, delivering against multiple actions in the Tayside Local Biodiversity Action Plan 2016-26.
Dr Wade added:
Several students who have undertaken research projects at the site have said their experience has helped them to really stand out in graduate job interviews. This confirms for me that we are producing students who are environmentally aware and understand that working with natural processes is a key component in building a greener, sustainable future. The restoration continues to inspire action and provides lessons in good practice and capacity building through links to wider strategies. River restoration specialists and varied stakeholder networks visit the site and witness the benefits of river restoration as it evolves.
Dr Craig MacIntyre, Esk District Salmon Fishery Board, said:
The Esk Rivers & Fisheries Trust is very proud of the Rottal Burn project. It is a fantastic example of restoring degraded river systems, and to watch the burn evolve and adapt over the years has been a privilege.
Awarded by the River Restoration Centre (RRC), the UK River Prize celebrates organisations that are working to improve the natural functioning and ecological integrity of rivers and catchments.
Martin Janes, UK River Prize judge, said:
This year’s entries cover a fascinating range of projects, and the judging panel are always excited to read all the wonderful applications we receive. All four finalists are great examples of innovative projects that have achieved freshwater ecosystem restoration through the dedication and hard work of all the partners and communities involved.
The Rottal Burn project was announced as the recipient of the 2023 UK River Prize at the River Prize Awards Dinner in Birmingham on Wednesday 19 April 2023.
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