Flooding: Unsung heroes at work daily in Dales rivers

Dan Turner, left, of the Yorkshire Dales River Trust after successfully completing 'willow spiling' at  a river.
Dan Turner, left, of the Yorkshire Dales River Trust after successfully completing 'willow spiling' at a river.

Broken bridges, ruined businesses, water-logged living rooms and lost possessions, everywhere you look residents have rallied to the cause with the support of the emergency services and, sometimes, the armed forces.

But spare a thought for the small band of people in North Yorkshire who spend most days of every year in sodden fields and rivers in their wellies doing their bit to improve our river system.

Volunteers helping Yorkshire Dales Rivers Trust.

Volunteers helping Yorkshire Dales Rivers Trust.

In the process they do very tangible things to support habitat and wildlife as well as, importantly, helping reduce the risk of flooding.

One quiet hero is Dan Turner of Yorkshire Dales River Trust, a charitable group whose watchword is working to enhance and protect the rivers of the Yorkshire Dales for the benefit of everyone.

Based in Grassington, this busy 26-year-old farmer’s son is a part of a team of just two full-time and one part-time staff members augmented by a hardy band of volunteers unafraid of getting their hands dirty.

If Dan’s not visiting a school showing pupils how rivers work and what they can do to improve them, he’s most likely to be out in the cold and mud hammering in willow spiles or replacing lost tree cover to stabilise riverbanks and prevent soil erosion.

Dan said: “Water has to come out somewhere. In heavy rainfall it flows downstream from headleads until it hits a pinch point at a town or village.

“Historically, rivers have often been deliberately straightened. But that affects their natural behaviour. Rivers need friction and roughness in them. It’s also good for the habitat and wildlife.

"The most important thing is to slow the flow of water down in the headlands and increase the natural amount of wetlands so rainfall doesn’t go downstream.

The Yorkshire Dales River Trust’s brief is an ambitious one.

It covers all the main rivers in our region - from the Swale in the north near Richmond, the Wharfe to the west near Grassington, the Ure near Ripon, the Nidd near Pateley Bridge and Harrogate all the way down to the Ouse in the south.

‘Sustainable river systems’ may not sound sexy but, in terms of flood defences, it’s an idea whose time may have come.

Earlier this week, Baroness McIntosh, vice president of the Association of Drainage Authorities, proclaimed that schemes to slow the flow of rivers like the one which saved Pickering from serious flooding could be more cost-effective than major infrastructure projects.

It’s something the Yorkshire Dales River Trust has been pushing for since it was first launched in 1994.

Dan said: “It’s been a terrible winter, a very hard one for communities across the region .

“Creating sustainable river systems has so many more benefits than putting up concrete walls to protect houses. which have a cost implication. There might come a point where the walls will not be high enough, anyway.

“A long-term approach is going to have a long-term benefits.”

Dan said it would be wrong to think of the YDRT and its small band of volunteers as a lone army in this battle of the environment.

In fact, it’s just the opposite.

Funded mainly by a combination of public donations and grants from the Environment Agency in response to the EU Water Framework Directive Objective, the YDRT’s aims require it to work in the same field, sometimes literally, as groups such as The Woodland Trust, Wildlife Trust, Natural England, the NFU and the AONB.

Originally from Eden Valley near Penrith in Cumbria, he studied environmental science at Leeds University, having done voluntary work as a teenager with the Eden Rivers Trust.

But his biggest inspiration, he says, was his father who runs a mixed farm of milk, sheep and arable growing wheat and barley.

“I used to work with my dad on the farm. He was always keen to improve the river. Farmers get a lot of blame for being destructive to nature but, in general, they’re not actually like that at all. It’s in their own interests to look after the environment.

“My ethos is that rather than farmers and landowners being an issue, they’re the solution to the problem.”.

Rather than cutting communities off from rivers, the Trust works hard at making them open to everyone to enjoy.

Anglers on the Ure near Ripon have been delighted in recent years to see the stocks of salmon and trout rise.

When he’s not at work with the Trust, Dan, who lives in The Yorkshire Dales National Park with his partner Sarah, doesn’t exactly take it easy in his spare-time. He’s a dedicated and talented rock climber and ‘boulderer’ who has even travelled to the USA in search of new challenges.

Some challenges are not surmountable, however.

The Trust may be convinced that a long-term sustainable approach to managing our rivers is a win-win situation all round but not all flooding is preventable.

Dan said: “The rainfall we have experienced this winter is unprecedented. Even small amounts of rainfall have been triggering another flood because the land has already been so saturated.

“With climate change, it’s not a problem which is going to go away any time soon. I really think that all of us collectively doing little things will make a big difference in the end.”