Peak District: Rewilding the Rivers

englandAndy Pietrasik, The Guardian, March 25, 2013

For Warren Slaney the devil is in the details. Details that could easily escape the attention of many visitors to the Peak District national park, because Warren's world exists along the edges and the margins and beneath the surface of the rivers he manages as head keeper of the Duke of Rutland's 3,800-acre Haddon estate ( in the Derbyshire dales.

For the fishing fraternity, there are few finer examples of rivercraft than along these stretches of the Wye, the Lathkill and the Bradford around Bakewell and the villages of Rowsley and Youlgrave. Warren has been trying to turn back the clock to a landscape predating the heavy hand of industrialisation and intensive farming. David Bellamy described his river management project as "radical" and in 2006 the fishery was a winner at the Wild Trout Trust's awards for conservation.

I first met fortysomething Warren a decade ago, when I came up to fish the river Wye after a stay at the Peacock, the estate's hotel at Rowsley. Stepping out of a damp, raw day into the sanctuary of the limestone-hewn hotel 10 years later, I find Warren hugging the radiator in the sitting room like a man who can never quite get the chill out of his bones. "I remember you," he says, as soon as he sees me. "You fished the river in 2003." Back then he showed me his favourite spot on the Wye, near Bakewell. Here was a place where you could slip down the bank between alder trees, gaining eye level with the river – all the better to read the secrets of the water spilling off the weir and the likely lies of the feeding trout.

Warren takes me back to the exact same spot and tells me how he is going to lower the level of that weir. It's all part of a plan he embarked on in 2003 to restore a more natural order to the rivers that have, over the centuries, been deviated and dammed in an attempt to manage the environment.

Derbyshire has a romantic place in fishing history. It started in the 17th century with Izaak Walton's celebration of the art in The Compleat Angler and his descriptions of the idyllic scenes at Charles Cotton's fishing temple on the Dove up the road in Hartington. Then there was James Ogden's revolutionary artificial dry fly, which he successfully fished on 5 June 1865 at the bridge in Bakewell. From the next day, fishermen would no longer be allowed to use live mayfly or artificial flies that sank beneath the surface of the water on the Haddon estate's rivers, so giving the trout some sanctuary.

Walton, Cotton and Ogden have been inspirational figures for Warren. In 2003, he stopped stocking the rivers with farmed fish – because he found they were having a negative impact on the wild population – and instigated a catch-and-release rule. In the resulting 10 years, wild trout have thrived.

We walk down the lane to the bottom meadow below the stone houses of Youlgrave village. From a distance, the river Lathkill looks like a long, wide mirror in the mist, the only animation on this dank day coming from a few hardy walkers who scamper up the sides of the dry stone walls before they disappear completely into the fog on the horizon.

In the 18th century, the Marquess of Granby had a long, wide channel dug for the river Lathkill to run below Youlgrave so he could fish for the trout released from his hatchery upstream. Warren explains how a system of weirs was installed by Victorian engineers to improve the flow of the canal-like sections. It was all very precise and straight-edged.

He shows me how he has breathed natural rhythm and life back into the river by taking out the weirs, creating riffles and meanders, and roughing up the edges so that native species can thrive on the margins once more. He is at his most animated when he points to wild brown and rainbow trout gliding through the gin-clear water, and talks about the return of kingfishers, dippers and barn owls, otters and water voles.

"I grew up on a farm on the river Derwent, and I feel incredibly protective about all the rivers in Derbyshire," he says. In its way, the "rewilding" work that Warren is doing is every bit as revolutionary as the industry that once marched across this landscape. Only it's more sustainable. "I don't want anyone to look back in 200 or 300 years, and say those people in the 2000s got what they were doing here wrong," he says.

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