Looking after Nature

The River South Esk is home to wonderful wildlife. The rivers in the catchment are a Special Area of Conservation because of their Atlantic salmon and freshwater pearl mussel. There's a National Nature Reserve near its source, a Special Protection Area for birds near its mouth, and ten Sites of Special Scientific Interest scattered throughout the area. But wildlife needs our help to thrive and survive.

Years of human activity have changed the natural state of the river. Farming and forestry have altered or led to the loss of habitats, leading to a decline in the species they support. We're working to address these issues through nature-based solutions – an approach to conservation that aims to restore and work with natural processes. 

Often projects are planned at a landscape scale, rather than focusing on individual sites. The aim is to make things better for nature and better for people too, for example through helping to reduce the effects of climate change, reducing flooding, or improving water quality. Here's a taste of some the projects that we or our partners have developed.

Pearls in Peril

The Pearls in Peril project worked to conserve freshwater pearl mussel populations in the UK. On the River South Esk, this included restoring damaged habitat on the riverbed and the banks, creating buffers to reduce pollution, and planting trees to create shade and a source of food. The project also worked in local schools to tell children about the fascinating life cycle of pearl mussels, and the threats they face.


Mussels can live for over 100 years

Fighting invaders

Human activities have introduced thousands of species to places where they wouldn't naturally live. Some of them can rapidly colonise a wide range of habitats, leading to the extinction of native plants and animals. We work to control invasive non-native species throughout the catchment, for example by clearing himalayan balsam and Japanese knotweed.

Kelly Ann Dempsey

Pulling plants out at the root stops them spreading along river banks

The Pow Burn

The Pow Burn flows into the River South Esk near Montrose Basin. Over the centuries, it's been straightened, dredged, and had embankments built along its banks. All these alterations have reduced the quality of the river habitat. In 2017, the SEPA water environment fund suported improvements to 2.5 km of the river, restoring it to be more like its natural state. This work will improve local flood risk management as well as biodiversity.

Esk Rivers & Fisheries Trust

The Pow Burn after restoration work

Wildcat action

The Angus Glens are one of the best areas in Scotland for wildcats. These rare, iconic animals are threatened by habitat loss and interbreeding with domestic cats. The project aims to protect them by monitoring the population, promoting land management that preserves the thin woodland where they live, and encouraging responsible domestic cat ownership.


Scottish wildcats are meaner-looking than their domestic cousins

Clean water

Rivers can be polluted by many minor sources that build up to cause significant environmental damage. Staff from SEPA walked over 600 km along the South Esk and its tributaries to assess risks from this ‘diffuse pollution’. Over 150 farms got advice on how to reduce run-off from their land – now around 95% of farms in the catchment comply with regulations.

Kelly Ann Dempsey

Run-off from fields where cows graze can cause pollution

Contour planting

The way trees are planted can have a major effect on the environment. With support from Scottish Forestry, trees have been planted to follow the contours of the land in Glen Clova and Glen Doll. Planting like this improves natural flood management, controls pollution, and improves the local landscape and habitats. The project covers 165 hectares and may be extended to Glen Prosen.

Kelly Ann Dempsey

Contour planting helps to control flooding

Rottal Burn Restoration

This project restored meanders so the burn follows its historic course more closely, reconnected the flood plain to the watercourse, and planted many native trees. Students from Abertay and other Scottish universities have monitored changes in the burn, creating a valuable body of evidence on river naturalisation processes.

Kelly Ann Dempsey

Monitoring has created a valuable database

Fisheries Management

As in the rest of Scotland, salmon populations on the South Esk have been declining, probably because more fish are dying out at sea. The South Esk Fisheries Management Demonstration Project investigated the spring salmon population over 3 years between 2012-14. The study provided valuable insights that have been used to deliver a suite of environmental improvements.

Kelly Ann Dempsey

Young salmon sampled during the research

Get involved

Volunteers can do valuable work in the river’s catchment. Through the Mountains and The People project, they helped build upland paths at Loch Brandy and other sites around Glen Doll. The Cairngorms National Park volunteer programme works with rangers from AngusAlive at Glen Doll on tasks from red squirrel research to nature walks and path clearance.

James Carter

Volunteers helped build paths in places like Corrie Fee