diggers cutting out a new wiggly river channel in a field.

Re-wiggling our way to a wetter, wilder Bowber Head

We have just completed a major river restoration and natural flood management (NFM) partnership project at Cumbria Wildlife Trust’s Bowber Head Farm Nature Reserve near Ravenstonedale.

We’ve been working in partnership with the Environment Agency, Cumbria Wildlife Trust, Natural England and the Westmorland Dales Landscape Partnership Scheme to put the wiggles back into a historically straightened drain and reconnect it with 3Ha of floodplain.

We have also created four scrapes that will act as natural flood management; holding more water on the land during heavy rain then slowly releasing it into the river over time.

These features have created valuable habitat in the river and the meadow that will boost wildlife numbers and species and reduce potential flood risk to communities downstream.

Aerial photograph showing fields at Bowber Head with two rivers flowing through them

Before work began, showing the straightened drain and Scandal Beck. ©ERT

Landscape showing the new, wiggly river on the right, and the existing Scandal Beck on the left.

Scandal Beck (left), new river channel (right) © Eden Rivers Trust

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Andrew Walter, Reserves Officer at Cumbria Wildlife Trust explains why the river needed to be re-wiggled:

Straight rivers are shorter than naturally bending or meandering rivers and the water moves through them more quickly. Habitat quality is reduced, and in some cases, they increase the flood risk downstream. By putting the ‘wiggles’ back in, we’ll restore this river to a more natural river habitat, with the bends acting like brakes to reduce the flood risk. They also will allow more space and time for the water to move.

A natural river like this is better for the fish, native crayfish and other species that live in and depend on it, and the rejuvenated riverbanks will provide a sanctuary for wildlife … and people.

New river channel with bends and riverbanks starting to turn green as they recover. The water is clear and you can see the stones and gravel on the riverbed .

Beck bedding in - November 2023 © Cumbria Wildlife Trust

Bowber Head Farm is renowned for its amazing northern hay meadows, which we’ve been restoring since 2020. Once the river is re-wiggled, water will spill over onto some of the surrounding hay meadows during periods of high rainfall, enhancing these valuable meadows, and then trickle back in again as the water level drops.

The challenge

ERT’s years of experience in taking heavily modified, straightened rivers and rejuvenating them with naturally occurring features such as meanders, pools and riffles was put to the test.

Scandal Beck and a heavily modified, straightened drain (that runs parallel to the beck) flow right through the middle of the Bowber Head and Piper Hole Meadows SSSI (Site of Special Scientific Interest).
This nationally important, northern upland hay meadow is home to 92 plant species, such as wood crane’s-bill, greater burnet and lady’s mantles. These wet/marsh-loving plants should all thrive because of this project; however great care would be needed to ensure that any impact on the hay meadow from the works was minimised.

Lev Dahl, River Restoration Manager at Eden Rivers Trust explained how we ensured that the SSSI was protected during the project:

From start to finish, our aim has been to minimise the impact on the SSSI hay meadow.

Before work started, our volunteers undertook fish rescues to ensure protected species such as bullhead and white-clawed crayfish could be safely relocated to Scandal Beck and we used various methods, including hay bales to reduce the levels of sediment travelling downstream during the works.


hay bales and a pump on the river bed ready to catch sediment as water fills the river channel.

Hay bales and a pump in place to capture sediment as the new/existing channels are connected. © Eden Rivers Trust

diggers cutting out a new wiggly river channel in a field.

Diggers working within the new river channel to protect the hay meadow. © Eden Rivers Trust

Our contractors, Catchment Designs ensured that movement of heavy machinery over the site was carefully controlled and minimised.

Diggers were powered by biofuels and only followed the path of the new channel – digging it so that earth didn’t end up on the field. Work stopped during heavy rain/wet conditions so that the earth wasn’t churned up.

Re-using materials from within the site was essential to preserve its special nature.

The turf used was from the site and contains species-rich, native seeds sourced from the adjacent wildflower meadows, and material dug out from the new scrapes was used to fill in the old, straightened channel and create a kest (raised mound for a hedge).

Digger next to a long line of brown earth - new turf to cover the river channel that has been filled in.

Returfing the old, filled in channel with native species-rich seeded turf. © Eden Rivers Trust

What's next?

This winter, volunteers will help plant a 400m hedgerow on the kest to further reduce the amount of runoff and excess water reaching the river, reducing peak river levels during heavy rain and improving water quality.

This work was made possible thanks to generous support and funding from the Environment Agency and the Westmorland Dales Landscape Partnership Scheme which is supported by a grant from the National Lottery Heritage Fund.

Thanks also to staff from the Yorkshire Dales National Park for their advice and support regarding the planning aspects of this project.

David Evans, Westmorland Dales Landscape Partnership Scheme Manager said:

“It’s fantastic to see this project being delivered towards the end of the Scheme despite some of the challenges faced. A great example of partnership working and something which has already made a big impact. I look forward to seeing how it looks next summer.”


Visit/find out more about Bowber Head Farm Nature Reserve >>

Sunny day, a pond is half-frozen over and snow covers the riverbanks.

One of the new scrapes. © Cumbria Wildlife Trust

A group of people in hi-viz vests holding up small, hand-held fishing nets.

ERT volunteers ready to rescue some fish! © Eden Rivers Trust

A man uses a small fishing net to rescue fish in shallow water. A barn can be seen in the distance.

Carrying out a fish rescue in the old channel before it is drained. ©ERT

A man holds a pipe into the water in a river channel to pump it out.

Pumping out water after the fish rescue. © Eden Rivers Trust

Two diggers either side of a newly-dug river channel that bends from side to side from the front of the image to the back

A close-up of the new river channel. © Eden Rivers Trust

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