Buried brook bubbles back to life in Ennerdale

Posted: Monday 16th February 2015

An ancient Cumbrian stream that spent the last 40 years confined to a concrete pipe is babbling its way back to life thanks to efforts by the Environment Agency and United Utilities.

Ben Gill tumbles off Ennerdale’s Crag Fell into the River Ehen but was diverted by engineers trying to quench the thirst of a booming 1970s Copeland.

United Utilities now own and manage water supplies from Ennerdale, which has given Ben Gill back to nature by redirecting water down the original river bed.

Experts say the work is the latest step in effort to protect England’s last viable population of freshwater mussels, as well as a number of other protected species.

Restoring the natural flow of stones and gravel will improve habitats for young mussels and spawning Atlantic salmon.

Diane O’Leary, West Cumbria Rivers Trust, who is leading an EU conservation project in Ennerdale welcomed the work.

She said: “A few hundred years ago there would have been millions of freshwater mussels quietly cleaning rivers up and down the country. Now Ennerdale’s mussels are the largest breeding population remaining in England and, as a result, the River Ehen is designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest and a Special Area of Conservation.”

“A freshwater mussel’s life cycle is fascinating. The larvae must be inhaled by young Atlantic salmon or trout and attach to their gills. They spend the first few months of their life growing in this oxygen-rich environment until they drop off the following spring. They need to land and burrow into clean sand or gravel to survive. Silt or mud suffocates them.”

United Utilities project manager Simon Povey said the concrete pipe had been blocked and man-made structures delicately removed to allow Ben Gill to flow along its original path- as it did for eons, before man arrived.

He added: “Times have changed since the 1970s. Society is much more aware of the impact it has on the environment and we’ve got better at making our water supplies more sustainable.”

“As customers we often don’t appreciate where our tap water comes from. We have to share those resources with other creatures that need them. Ennerdale is an incredibly sensitive environment and home to some very special and critically endangered species.”

The restoration of Ben Gill is a sign of things to come for Ennerdale, which is currently the biggest source of public drinking water in west Cumbria. The Environment Agency is working with United Utilities to end their extraction of drinking water from Ennerdale and help protect the valley’s unique habitats.

The company is proposing to build a new pipeline from Thirlmere reservoir, which will safeguard the local environment and provide a more reliable source of water for the area’s business and tourist economy.

Jeremy Westgarth from the Environment Agency said: “Ben Gill has been given back to nature and once again provides vital habitats for spawning Atlantic salmon, fresh water mussels and other local species.”

“This project is a fantastic example of how we can balance the needs of people and nature and secure the future of one of Cumbria’s great wild spaces.”

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