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Swinhope Burn Fish Passage

One of the first volunteer projects completed by the new Trust was the repair of a “sleeper box” fish pass on the Swinhope Burn in 2009. Swinhope Burn is a meandering and heavily incised, densely wooded tributary originating on the high ground bordering Teesdale and Weardale, meeting the main River Wear at Westgate.

Most of Swinhope Burn had been cut off from migrating fish because of a series of large natural waterfalls formed from the limestone pavement which make up the stream bed. The fish pass had been constructed in the 1970s using railway sleepers to form 2 box pools enabling migrating fish to navigate a natural waterfall, which was itself modified to accommodate the pass.

Front view, fish pass in relation to the waterfall       View of the top pool, showing alterations to the waterfall

The cost of the materials was covered by the Environment Agency and delivered to the roadside about half a mile from the site. Local farmer Ian Dent of Glenwhelt transported the materials by tractor and trailer to the woodland edge where they were manhandled by Trust volunteers down a long 1:3 slope to the site. The sleepers were cut to size, drilled and spiked into the surviving foundation sleepers. The burn is very active and the pools need to be regularly cleared of stones. Refreshing work!

The upper fish pass however is dwarfed by a much larger fish ladder further downstream. Between 1969 and 1971, the local public water utility, the Northumbrian Water Authority, developed and built a long and looping fish ladder to bypass two natural waterfalls approx. 4.5m and 2m in height. These waterfalls are on land belonging to the long-established De Muschamp family, adjacent to Court House.

Court House is part of a small hamlet built within a deep narrow valley, and it is not visible from the main valley. It is believed that this site was chosen for early settlement as its secluded position offered some protection from marauding bands of border reivers, or moss troopers who laid waste both sides of the Anglo Scottish frontier for more than 300 years, until the union of the English and Scottish crowns and the creation of the United Kingdom finally allowed the pacification of what had been a lawless armed frontier.

Construction of fish ladder in 1971     90 degree bend linking the bottom and mid sections of the fish ladder, which extends beyond a further waterfall upstream
The long-term funding of the maintenance of fish passes remains a current issue. This fish ladder has had little in the way of maintenance since its completion. The landowner, David De Muschamp, removes stones which accumulate at the upstream end of the ladder as well as woody debris throughout. However, the corner section can silt up heavily and the first two pools in the lower sequence do not hold water in low flows and require repair. The Trust aim to assist with this.

About 200m below the fish pass is yet another waterfall about 1.5m in height at its lowest point.                         Lower Waterfall

Migratory trout have been recorded upstream of this obstacle and now have access to around 6km of high quality habitat, made possible by the 1970s fish ladder and sleeper box arrangement. Trust electro fishing surveys in 2011 and 2012 observed high densities of juvenile trout which indicate excellent recruitment. One survey found an adult sea trout which had migrated over 70 miles and negotiated a large number of obstructions to utilise the pristine spawning habitat in the upper reaches of the Wear.

Electrofishing above the tree line   Adult sea trout captured at the very top of he Swinhope catchment


Funders and supports of this project:

The Rivers Trust Living North Sea Environment Agency Durham University

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