I grew up living next to an urban burn in Portobello in Edinburgh. When I was a boy I used to marvel at the trout gently breaking the surface of the water to gulp insects or sometimes leaping out of the water completely to catch one mid-flight. Watching these amazing creatures inspired me firstly to pick up a fishing rod so I could catch them and see them in my own hands, and then later to study biology. Sadly, due to a number of factors those fish aren’t as abundant as they were when I was a child.

At Forth Rivers Trust I have been involved in two major works to ease barriers and improve fish passage on the river Almond in the Livingston area, the Howden weir rock ramp and the fish pass at Rugby Club, as part of the RiverLife project. The long-term goals of these projects are to remove barriers to fish movement that were put in place by during the industrial revolution. These weirs held back the water that turned the wheels that provided power for the mills and shale processing plants that once peppered the Almond. Human activities in the industrial revolution produced a huge amount of pollution and there are anecdotal accounts of sections of river actually being flammable due to run-off from the shale works! The weirs also provided a physical barrier which stopped migratory fish such as salmon, seatrout, and eels being able to reach vast areas of the river.  As a result of the extreme levels of industrial pollution the fish population of the Almond was utterly decimated. Due to changes in land use and the demise of the shale oil industry, the river Almond today is now a much more fish friendly river. Despite the legacy of the industrial revolution and the barriers in place to provide power means that migratory fish such as salmon and sea trout still can’t get past the weirs to access the spawning habitats in the upper sections of the catchment, with their populations remaining well below the levels they once were and could be again.

Throughout these projects I have been working as an ecological clerk of works (ECoW).  An ECoW’s main role is to provide monitoring and advice to ensure that construction does not have a negative effect on the surrounding wildlife and environment. To do this we help to promote awareness and compliance with several pieces of environmental legislation; ranging from those that look after protected species or control construction activities in rivers. We also strive to maintain good relationships with contractors and clients as sometimes, in order to protect the environment, we have to advise them to do things they would rather we didn’t.

We are lucky to have some protected species such as otters and the ECoW’s job is to ensure that the effects of construction do not impact upon them, and that all legal requirements are met in looking after them. During my time working on the Almond I’ve been lucky to see otters, kingfisher and even electrofish the odd salmon.

I also took part in a number of Q&A events where we met members of the public to talk about the works taking place. This was a really valuable experience as a lot of local people wanted to know why the works were taking place. Many were very supportive when they realised the long-term goals of the works as bringing back fish and as part of the wider regeneration of the Almond. Several people asked where the money was coming from and why all the fuss for fish when this could be diverted to helping people instead? This is really a question of how funding is distributed at a multi-governmental level (initially European and the UK and Scottish) and goes way above and beyond my role as an ECoW but I found it made me question how the works could be justified. Firstly, it was human beings built the weirs and polluted the waters that stopped the fish from being able to get up the river and I think we have a duty to put right the damage that was done to the river in the past. Secondly, I remembered my own experience of watching the fish in the burn at Portobello. I thought about the prospect of magnificent fish such as salmon and sea trout leaping their way back up to Livingston and how this could inspire generations to come.

So, the answer to the question why all the fuss about the fish? The answer is it’s much, much, more than fish.  It’s about the relationship we humans form with our natural spaces and how we look after them. It’s a tough job when you look at rivers full of trolleys, wet wipes and plastic, but the works at Howden and Rugby Club are an important step in the right direction towards recovering and preserving these special environments for future generations; which I’m proud to have had a hand in.