United Kingdom: Scotland: The River Ythan Restoration Project


Increasing eutrophication in the Ythan Estuary of northeast Scotland led to a river restoration project in 2001 in which planners worked closely with farmers in the catchment area to develop innovative ways of mitigating agricultural pollution. Demonstration farms were established to raise awareness about “cleaner” alternatives to existing practices, and a new software program was created to assist participating farmers with the completion of nutrient budgets for their farms. Furthermore, farmers were encouraged to create buffer strips between cultivated fields and stretches of watercourse in order to reduce both sediment and pollution in the river system. In addition to these outreach and education activities, the project also incorporated a streamside restoration component in which a number of sites along the river were treated to improve riparian habitat conditions. Restoration activities included the felling of non-native spruce, construction of fish ladders, erosion control through revegetation, and redesign of existing weirs. Although monitoring surveys have not yet shown an improvement in water quality, the Ythan Project has successfully involved the local community in important environmental issues and encouraged farmers to adopt practices that will ultimately facilitate the long-term rehabilitation of the watershed.

Quick Facts

Project Location:
A975, Ellon AB41, UK, 57.34076728708145, -2.005670132240539

Geographic Region:

Country or Territory:
United Kingdom


Estuaries, Marshes & Mangroves, Freshwater Rivers & Streams

Organization Type:
Governmental Body


Project Stage:

Start Date:

End Date:

Primary Causes of Degradation

Agriculture & Livestock, Urbanization, Transportation & Industry

Degradation Description

Water quality in the River Ythan catchment has steadily worsened over the past couple of decades. Increasing levels of nitrates and phosphates from agricultural run-off, along with discharges from sewage treatment facilities, have led to considerable nutrient enrichment in the river and, more prominently, in the estuary. Eutrophication of estuary waters has become a major concern because algal blooms have been shown to reduce the quantity and availability of the small, mud-dwelling invertebrates upon which the estuary’s bird populations are dependent. This degradation of critical habitat has compromised the estuary’s status as a Special Protection Area for wading birds under the European Birds Directive.

Reference Ecosystem Description

The Ythan Estuary is a designated Special Protection Area (SPA) for its wading bird populations, and it supports the largest breeding colony of eiders (Somateria) on the UK mainland. The estuary is also part of the Forvie National Nature Reserve and has been designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and a wetland of international importance under the Ramsar Convention.

Project Goals

– To introduce measures aimed at reducing pollutants, and thus mitigate the growth of algae in the estuary and enhance the river’s ecological value
– To provide a model of best practice for the involvement of local communities in sustainable land management


The project does not have a monitoring plan.


The project’s stakeholders include: local residents; local government; landowners; land managers and farmers; and national government agencies responsible for conserving the river.

Description of Project Activities:
Forty−seven public events were organised in association with the project, from workshops and information sessions to volunteer tree planting days. Aimed at raising community awareness of important environmental issues related to water management and encouraging community involvement in the project, these events attracted a wide range of people and resulted in the formation of a core group of volunteers that participated throughout the project. Initial river surveys were conducted between 2002 and 2004 with the help of a few volunteers. These surveys, intended to provide baseline data for use in later monitoring, focused on the main stem of the Ythan and two significant tributaries. A 500-metre stretch of water was surveyed every 2 kilometres for the entire length of the river, and in 2004, data on the use of land immediately adjacent to the watercourse was also collected. Consultation and collaboration with farmers was an integral part of the project, as the implementation of more environmentally-friendly farming practices was a primary objective. Two demonstration farms were established to illustrate the benefits of new agri−environment schemes and nutrient budgeting. The farms were publicised through the local press and the project's website, and direct invitations were distributed to farmers who had previously expressed interest. Seven tours were arranged for local farmers in order to demonstrate the potential of new agri-environment schemes and allow farmers the opportunity to discuss ideas directly with one another. One innovative new idea tested at the demonstration farms was pasture pumps for off-stream watering. At Ordhill Farm, one of the two demo farms, pasture pumps were installed in one of the fields during the summer of 2003. These pumps are activated by the pressure of the cow's nose and draw water up from the burn and into the small drinking trough. This eliminates the need for cattle to enter the burn to drink, thereby reducing erosion and other impacts. The pumps worked well and garnered much interest from farmers who felt they could potentially be useful additions on farms where fenced-off buffer strips reduce stock access to the burn. Besides demo farms, the project also introduced farmers to nutrient budgeting as a means of protecting the river. A simple, easy-to-use software program was created by the University of Hertfordshire to expedite calculations and assist farmers in completing nutrient budgets for each of their fields. With the assistance of project participants, 62 farmers in the Ythan catchment became acquainted with the software and successfully completed budgets for their farms. Moreover, local agricultural advisors were provided with the software in hopes that they will help other farmers create budgets after the project's completion. Another project initiative aimed at reducing agricultural pollutants in the River Ythan is the creation of un-cropped and/or un-grazed strips of land adjacent to watercourses. These strips act as a "˜buffer' between the farming activities in the main field and the watercourse, offering some protection from pesticide-spray drift, animal manures, loose soil etc. Farmers are normally unwilling to create these strips without some form of incentive, but the Scottish Rural Stewardship Scheme now offers financial recompense for the lost land included in a buffer strip. Therefore, the project was able to secure the cooperation of 200 farmers who agreed to initiate the application process for compensation under the RSS. Besides interfacing with farmers, the project also conducted restoration activities to improve the riparian environment along several reaches of the river. - At the Gight Woods site, a 5.3-hectare stand of Norway spruce was felled between July and September 2003. The trees were planted along the river in the 1960s and had been damaging fish habitat and compromising bank structure. Because the site is part of the river's floodplain it was decided that the brash from the tree felling could not be left to rot as at most felling sites. Instead, the branches and other brash were gathered into large piles and burnt on-site in order to reduce the risk of their being swept downstream in a flood event. Subsequent to the spruce removal, volunteers planted 300 broad-leaved trees at the site. - In the summer of 2003, a fish pass was installed at Haddo. The following summer, some weedy areas immediately downstream of the fish pass were dug out in order to open up fish access to the pass. Large sea trout have since been seen upstream, indicating that the pass is working as expected. - Excavation took place at the Ythanwells wetland in 2003, and the site was replanted with appropriate vegetation. Furthermore, a field drain was disabled to allow for greater inundation. - At Fyvie castle, sycamores were removed in 2003 and 2004 to allow the establishment of ground flora on the banks, which should encourage greater flow diversity and reduced siltation. At the same site in September 2004, Japanese knotweed, an invasive species, was eradicated using glyphosate spray. - In 2004, a fish ladder was built at Methlick to allow fish access to the upper stretches of the burn. With the ladder installed, the burn was restocked with juvenile fish by the Ythan District Fishery Board (YDFB). - Fencing was erected at Chapelhaugh in 2004 to protect the site from further damage, and streamside erosion was addressed by planting trees and sowing grass seed. Branches from old Christmas trees were placed along the banks for protection until the newly planted vegetation could become established. - A berm was created at a wetland site in July 2004. Practitioners excavated a wetland shelf and removed concrete reinforcing before installing coir matting to protect the new banks. With these alterations complete, volunteers replanted the site with a wide range of wetland species, and the spoil area was seeded with a damp grassland seed mix. - In August 2004 at Cairnfechel, Udny, an obstructive concrete weir creating blockage was replaced by a stepped weir built with locally-sourced rocks and minimal concrete. This new weir will allow fish passage and will improve hydrology, enabling the banks to return to a more natural state. - Flow diversification was accomplished on the Burn of Keithfield in September 2004. Small rocks and boulders were placed at strategic locations along the burn to create pools and eddies in the flow. These hydrologic features increase the variety of flow types in the burn, thereby creating a greater variety of wildlife habitat. - In 2004, bat and bird boxes were deployed at key riparian locations around the catchment by a group of volunteers. A total of 50 boxes was installed (20 bat; 30 bird) in an attempt to increase wildlife habitat. - In 2004, a wetland shelf was built at Modley burn using the same methodology as described above. With the help of local landowners, youth groups, and/or project volunteers, a total of 36 riparian sites have been planted with 2,257 broad-leaved trees. During the winter of 2002-2003, 10 sites were planted with a total of 409 trees. A further 16 sites were planted during the winter of 2003-2004 with a total of 1,015 trees, and in 2004-2005, another 10 sites were planted with 833 trees.

Ecological Outcomes Achieved

Eliminate existing threats to the ecosystem:
Significant changes in water quality in the River Ythan catchment may not be observed for many years. However, the actions taken in association with this project were highly successful in terms of involving a wide range of local community members and creating the potential for improvement in water quality and habitat conditions over time. The collaboration with farmers in the catchment area is especially promising, as nutrient budgets, water management plans and buffer strips created through the project will ultimately reduce suspended solids and nutrient loads in the watershed and thereby promote the gradual recovery of the ecosystem.

Socio-Economic & Community Outcomes Achieved

Key Lessons Learned

The Ythan Project was selected by the European Commission as one of the 25 best projects in Europe during 2005, a reflection of the hard work and dedication of the project volunteers, staff and partners. The collaborative approach demonstrated by this project is applicable in other geographic and social contexts; and the strategies for educating and assisting farmers can be of great utility in other such restorations. Already, there has been interest in the nutrient budgeting software from practitioners working on the River Dee in Aberdeenshire, the Endrick catchment of Loch Lomond and Tamil Nadu University in India.

The following is a list of important lessons learned as a result of project activities:
– The need for organisations involved in partnership projects to remain flexible.
– The need for organisations to be able to consider a range of issues broader than their own individual remits.
– The very real level of commitment and interest which exists in the wider community and which is often an untapped resource.
– The need to broaden the opportunities for involvement as much as possible.
– The successful involvement of the wider public in professional activities such as survey work offers a useful opportunity to increase participation and understanding.
– The requirement for a flexible funding system in order to allow full public participation in the decision making process.
– The increased time requirement when working with many stakeholders in partnership and when dealing with wider groups–such as farmers–on a one−to−one basis.

Long-Term Management

Although the estuary has RAMSAR status, this designation does not protect the site from the impacts of activities upstream or more general impacts such as pollution of the adjacent sea area. Designation as a Nitrate Vulnerable Zone (NVZ) will not protect the site either, as this designation focuses only on nitrogen and fails to address other pollutants (e.g. phosphorus and soil particles). Long-term improvement in the health of the river system is dependent to a large extent on the ability of the local community to assume responsibility and develop a voluntary response to problems facing the river. The public outreach activities conducted in association with this project aimed to form collaborative relationships among farmers, community members, environmental organizations, planning agencies, etc. and to encourage community involvement in watershed issues. As a result of project efforts, many more people have come into contact with the problems facing the river, and are becoming aware of the actions they can take as individuals to tackle some of these. Furthermore, by bringing land managers and members of the larger community together in a productive forum, the project has provided non-farming residents an opportunity to express their opinions and offer their input on the way local land is managed.

Sources and Amounts of Funding

737,000 Euro The Ythan Project was funded through the Scottish government and the European Commission’s Life fund. EC Life contributed 358,000 euros, or roughly half of the total project cost.

Other Resources

Ythan Project Homepage
URL: http://www.ythan.org.uk/

Keith Newton
Formartine Area Manager
Aberdeenshire Council
29 Bridge Street
Ellon, Aberdeenshire AB41 9AA
Tel No: +44 1358 726402
Fax: +44 1358 726410
Email: Keith.Newton@aberdeenshire.gov.uk

Tamsin Morris
River Basin Planning Co-ordinator
Scottish Environment Protection Agency, Aberdeen
Tel No: 01224 424620 Mobile: 07979 705359
Email: tamsin.morris@sepa.org.uk

Primary Contact

Organizational Contact