Interview by Caroline Collinge
Jack Spees is the Director of the Ribble Rivers Trust and is leading the Pendle Woodlands and Invasive Non Native Species Project (Pendle WINNS) as part of the Pendle Hill Landscape Partnership. He’s worked for the Trust for almost 10 years and shares some insights into the Trust’s work and Pendle WINNS Project and what drives him.
What is the main role of the Ribble Rivers Trust?
In the broadest context what we do is manage the land and the whole catchment that feeds into a river channel.
99% of a river’s problems are not related to the river channel itself, it’s about managing the river catchment around the rivers. If I say river to you, you’re thinking about the little bit of stream that’s running there, whereas I’m looking at the field and the land around it and thinking, OK, that’s where any problems are.
If there is an opportunity to change the way the land is managed, there’s an opportunity to improve rivers – that for us is a directing principle of our work.
How large is the Ribble Catchment?
The River Ribble catchment covers 500 square miles starting above Ribblehead on the fells of the Yorkshire Dales and flows down to the Ribble Estuary on the Fylde Coast.
Then there are also the tributaries of the River Hodder, River Calder, River Hyndburn and River Darwen feeding into the Ribble so in total we have around 1,500 recorded miles of river and stream to manage – you can see the scale of the challenge we face.
We are the third largest rivers trust in the country after the Wye and Usk River Trust and West Country River Trust. In terms of the work we deliver on the ground we are probably equal to them.
What are the main challenges you face in your work?
Funding is a real issue. Our core income is tiny, we are funded by membership subscriptions, volunteers and Project Funding. We have to stay busy, because there is no other way to deliver our work. We are always bidding for money and trying to be cost effective. I’ve calculated we would need £50 million to do the work we would like to, excluding the farm infrastructure. We are really ambitions, we really do want to fix the catchment and there is a lot to fix!
We have to work really closely with stakeholders in all our projects. Our big focus is farming and the farm environment – we have three farm advisors in our team. We aren’t about trying to stop farmers farming it’s about helping them farm in a way that’s better for them and for the environment. We can’t tell you how to farm better but we can show you things that you might be interested.
How do you try and manage conflicts of interest?
We always get conflicts of interest within our work and want to ensure we understand everyone’s concerns. We are looking a new technology to capture 360o photos of a landscape. We’ll get the different conservation, land management and recreation interests together to look at that photo and look at the things of interest for them – the farmer might think that’s a wet muddy hole where my sheep get stuck, the guy from the RSPB might be thinking, oh that’s great wading bird habitat and we are thinking we would like a wetland or some trees on it. We then hope to turn it into a series of videos so people can see the issues through other people’s eyes.
What is the Pendle Woodland and Invasive Non Native Species Project (Pendle WINNS)?
Pendle WINNS will involve and engage local communities, land owners and volunteers in the creation of new woodlands, improved management of existing woodlands and control of invasive non-native species. After an initial habitat survey in 2016, it was clear there was a need for such a project and it will contribute valuable ecosystems, aim to offer positive change and multiple benefits to the Pendle Hill area.
Why is woodland management needed around Pendle?
As part of our work we are interested in any woodland but clough woodland in particular tend to be the formative river water courses. Whether they run wet part of the year or the whole year they need managing as they are channels for water.
Anyone who lives in the vicinity of Pendle will see the beauty of the landscape, but once you start to work in my sector, you tend to see the problems in the landscape. Whenever I look at Pendle Hill I see these cloughs without woodlands on them and I’m thinking they should all have woodland on them.
Why are trees such an important part of river catchment management?
Most of our rivers are tree lined – we plant thousands of trees a year. People say, “You’re not the Woodland Trust, why are you planting so many trees?”
Rivers and trees are so interconnected, both in terms of woody material that falls into the rivers such as leaves and small branches which are really important for the invertebrates, fish and bird habitats, to the larger branches that form habitat complexities where fish can take cover or otters might build their holts. Trees also regulate water quality, quantity and temperature. What’s more relevant these days given the increase in rainfall and amount of flooding we see, is trees can have a big impact on the amount of water and rate at which that water runs off, very much slowing the flow. You get more benefit from slowing the flow nearer the point the rain makes contact with the ground.
That’s really important for people living in communities downstream such as Barrowford, Padiham, Whalley, Sabden, Pendleton and Clitheroe. Anything we can do above these communities can benefit these communities from flood risk.
How else will communities benefit from this work?
Planting trees in the right location can help boost productivity of farmland by improving nutrient uptake and preventing soil loss as well as providing shelter for livestock.
As well as creating new recreational areas, a longer term objective is also to be able to generate wood products from these new woodlands.
What are the focus invasive non-native species?
Giant Hogweed and Himalayan Balsam are the main problems in the area but we’re also keeping an eye open for Japanese Knotweed which is really difficult to control.
Why are they such a problem?
The main issue is these species dominate the area they are in and reduce biodiversity. Giant Hogweed in particular is a real problem as if you get the sap on your skin you can suffer significant burns when exposed to sunlight. Once these species become truly established, they become almost impossible to eradicate. The seedbank for Giant Hogweed is 5 to 15 years and it only takes one seed in one person’s boot to spread it. Since the 2015 floods when the seedbanks were disturbed Giant Hogweed has really spread in the lower parts of the River Ribble where the seeds collect.
Some of these species aren’t so much of a problem in the upper parts of the catchment but in the Pendle area we have problems in the Calder Catchment, particularly Dean Brook at Simonstone.
Balsam causes issues in that it dominates all other species, so when it dies back in winter, it leaves bare river banks which causes erosion. We know beekeepers love Balsam as it provides a superb nectar source but we are educating them to plant other species such as willow and ivy.
How are they managed?
Fortunately Giant Hogweed only flowers once so a priority is removing flower heads and any seed heads that form. Balsam can be pulled to stop the seeds spreading and encourage other species to grow in its place.
Who will you be working with as part of this project.
Farmers, landowners, local community groups and other conservation groups will all be involved. I’m sure there will be some challenging discussions around what’s more valuable – a new woodland here or some grassland there – they are locally important and we’re looking at balancing everyone’s needs. For a recreational aspect, there is the potential to consider new access into new woodlands where appropriate.
How can members of the public get involved in the project?
Within the project there will be woodland creation where we would be looking for volunteers to help with fencing and tree planting. The management of existing woodland is also really important for us and could involve thinning, coppicing, understory planting and creating habitat piles. There may also be opportunities to get involved with some surveying and help with INNS control such as Balsam pulling.
What’s driven you to work in river conservation?
It’s about making a difference. I’ve always had a passion for rivers and flowing water. I grew up in Pembrokeshire and worked on farms since the age of nine picking potatoes! My role now really combines loads of my interests; woodlands, streams, agriculture and problem solving.
Pembrokeshire is a lovely part of the world, how do you find living in the Ribble Valley?
It was weird coming to the Ribble Valley but it was home, almost immediately! I’ve lived in cities and rural locations but I really like the balance I’ve got here.
If you were showing a visitor some of the highlights of the Ribble Catchment, where would you take them?
That’s a really difficult one. One of my favourite views is the view towards Pendle from Dinckley suspension bridge over the Ribble, to me that’s the Ribble Valley in a nutshell.
In the upper parts of the Ribble you have the real contrast of almost lunar views – glacial drumlins, moorland and lack of trees.
Actually, I’ll tell you where my absolute favourite place is. The weather has got to be right, but as you drop down to Whitewell at the top of Hall Hill, the Forest of Bowland AONB have got a bench there and a ‘Leap in the Park’ interpretation board; that view! It’s just amazing and you have got every land use in view, you’ve got lowland intensive farming, marginal farming, commercial forestry, deciduous woodland, you can see the Langdon and the Dunsop Valleys and when you get the light just right with the bracken in the sunshine it was just amazing. I was saying to the guys in the office, we’ll have to get a drone up there, on a good day you can see the river as well!
And what about your favourite spot around Pendle?
All of it! I love the stark contrast of ‘urban’ and ‘rural’ between the two sides of the hill. I also love how Sabden and Roughlee are nestled at either end and are almost forgotten about. I’ve done quite a few walks around the streams on Pendle and probably my favourite spot is the view from Big End looking up towards Pen-y-Gent to the north. Coming back along the hill I also like the view to the Calder Valley and looking down on Sabden is pretty impressive as well.