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An untamed riverThacka Beck, Penrith

By Dyane Silvester

It is easy to forget what a natural river looks like.

For many of us, the first waterway we think of is one flowing through a town and most of these are channelled, directed through pipework, or their flow controlled in some way.

Despite these restrictions, it is still possible to manage urban waterways as rich havens for animals – as sightings of otters on the Kent in Kendal, and on Ulverston Canal testify. Urban rivers can be rich in fish, bird, plant and invertebrate life as a walk at Thacka Beck Nature Reserve in Penrith shows. The river was re-naturalised to provide flood prevention in the town and is now managed for wildlife.

But take a walk up the valleys which extend into the hills, and you'll find untamed streams and rivers also teeming with wildlife. In the Lake District we are lucky that so many of our rivers and river corridors retain significant natural features, which makes them of considerable national importance.

In their natural state, rivers are very dynamic systems, with the shape and route of the channel changing not only along its length but also over time. Erosion in fast flowing parts creates deep pools which are ideal for fish, and deposition of gravels and sands results in shallower areas and gently sloping banks more suited to amphibians and some birds.

Shallow rapids provide a foothold for invertebrates, and when walking you might be lucky enough to see dippers feeding; recognisable by their bobbing action on rock, or their rapid straight flight along the river.

The upper reaches of our streams tend to be narrow and steep and susceptible to flash flooding, which scours out a deeper wider channel. It is only lichens, algae and the most tenacious plants which can hold on in these fast-flowing places.

The lower stretches of streams often meander through broader valleys in the Lake District, allowing slow-flowing sheltered areas to develop where reeds and taller aquatic plants can take hold, giving shelter for frogspawn, young fish, and nesting wildfowl, and all sorts of animals.

Where rivers are allowed to inundate their natural flood plains during seasonal heavy rain, the resulting deposition of fertile silts replenishes nutrients in the soil and is essential to the health of the plant and animal life on the flood plain. If the flood plain is used as agricultural land, then the aftermath of this flooding is generally advantageous to the farmer as well as the environment.

Although there are vast differences between the controlled rivers in our towns, and the untamed watercourses of the hills, we can see that both can provide a rich environment for wildlife.

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