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BLOG: Turn your paddle into a safari….

Derbyshire Wildlife Trust's Dr Scott McKenzie shares with us the rich wildlife present along the River Derwent in Derbyshire.

In the early autumn, as the River Derwent was back on the rise and the leaves were starting to turn the warm shades of the season, I went for a paddle with British Canoeing’s Ben Seal and Peak UK’s Pete Astles along a glorious section of the River Derwent, Derbyshire.

Up until recently, the only way I had experienced the rich wildlife present along our watercourses was either from bankside paths, or stood in the channel during any number of aquatic surveys or fishing trips. As we drifted down stream we encountered many of the usual wildlife suspects – including one of my favourites - the dipper.

This is certainly a species to keep an eye out for – you won’t be disappointed. Although not as “showy” as a kingfisher, it’s a bird I could (and have!) watch for hours, “dipping” on the top of half-submerged rocks, then diving into the water to forage for its insect tapas. You may also spot it zooming past you - keeping close to the water surface – as if magnetically drawn to it.

Other species to keep an eye out for are:

Kingfisher – a lightning bolt of blue and green flashing along the water. Most frequently you only ever catch a glimpse of these birds whizzing past, but with a little patience, watching them fish from a perch is extremely rewarding.

Salmon – the king of fish! Whilst number of this iconic species are extremely low on the River Derwent resulting from the large number of man-made barriers, look out for them attempting to leap weirs in the autumn – particularly the lower Derwent and Trent.   

Water crowfoot – this wonderful submerged aquatic plant is found trailing in fast flowing, clean waters. Often simply referred to as “weed” by many anglers, this plant provides shelter to fish and invertebrates and during summer months produce delicate white flowers on the water’s surface – what a delight!

Otter- Chances are you won’t see these elusive creatures – but that doesn’t mean they are not there! During the day they hide out under bankside tree roots, hollows and log piles, but will come out at night to hunt for fish. Look out for signs of otter – their dung or “spraints” are used to mark territory and can be found on top of rocks – particularly around bridges. Otter spraint smells faintly of jasmine – but you’re welcome to leave the poo-sniffing to the ecologists!  

Floating along a river in a canoe or kayak offers a wonderful and unique way to watch wildlife – as long as it done with a few key things in mind! The main thing to remember is to keep disturbance to an absolute minimum.

Be mindful of the time of year you’re paddling. In the spring when birds are nesting in your garden, others will be nesting along our river banks. Species such as little grebe, moorhen and coot nest in vegetation along the river margins, therefore avoid these densely vegetated areas when passing between the water and bank. These areas can also be home to water vole, a protected species that tend to inhabit slower flowing areas of river and live in bankside holes – all the more reason to avoid disturbing this important bankside habitat. If you see something rustling in the undergrowth – give it a wide berth. Similarly, it’s always best to give any water fowl with chicks plenty of room to prevent them being spooked.

This also applies to the autumn when fish spawning takes place. Species, such as trout, excavate hollows in the gravels on the river bed in which they lay their eggs. These “redds” rely on being free from fine sediment and need plenty of well-oxygenated water flowing over them to hatch successfully. Therefore during the autumn and winter months avoid disturbing these gravelly areas and stirring up lots of sediment.  At other times of the year try and avoid “loitering” in the deeper pools where fish tend to congregate and use as a refuge away from predators.

Dr Scott McKenzie, Living Rivers Officer

Derbyshire Wildlife Trust.