Protecting fish stocks in the Kyle district since the 1860s

Sean Dugan

Native riparian trees have been planted along 2.7km of riverbank on the River Oykel Special Area of Conservation (SAC). The SAC is primarily designated for freshwater pearl mussels, with Atlantic salmon as a qualifying feature. Mass fish kill events have been documented on two previous occasions at this site during summer heatwaves.

Alder, grey willow, goat willow, downy birch and hazel were planted, mimicking neighboring woodlands, to create diverse habitat and dappled shade in future. Natural regeneration of riverbank woodlands was in the past hindered by excessive deer browsing therefore Kyle of Sutherland Fisheries Trust have employed a deer manager to protect the planted trees from damage and to allow further woodland expansion via natural regeneration.

As with our restoration on the River Tirry, we worked closely together with Scottish Forestry and RSPB to plant using a low density ‘clumped’ design, providing naturalistic flight pathways for birds. Areas of deep peat were surveyed and left unplanted with planting delivered by contractors, Alexander Forestry.

The project was delivered on land owned by Upper Oykel Fishings Limited and funded by Mossy Earth and Kyle of Sutherland Fisheries Trust. A donation of tree guards was also gratefully received from The Woodland Trust. Work is underway to scope out further options for restoration downstream with landowner Upper Oykel Fishings Limited and upstream with owner Benmore Estate.

Riparian planting on the River Oykel Special Area of Conservation with alder and willow planted near the water without tree tubes

With no access to the far bank, trees and their protection were ferried across the river by boat with thanks to Kyle of Sutherland District Salmon Fishery Board staff.

With thanks to The European Nature Trust, Louis Vuitton have joined us in our vision to restore native woodland on some of the UK’s most threatened river systems. By collecting 10p from every carrier bag issued from their Edinburgh Store, the French Maison are creating a financial engine that will allow the scaling of Kyle Riverwoods projects.

Not satisfied with learning about the Riverwoods project second-hand though, Louis Vuitton team members travelled to Sutherland to meet project officer, Sean Dugan and TENT staff, Jacob Dykes and Kate Heightman. They braved incessant rain to plant native riverbank trees on the Allt Chaisegail burn, a tributary of the river Tirry. Those wearing wellingtons formed a planting team on the far riverbank while those wearing walking boots planted the near bank in a hotly contested competition to plant the most trees. At close of play each riverbank welcomed saplings of new aspen, hazel, birch and alder, which in the future will improve habitat for the fish by providing shade to cool the burn and a source of nutrients and insect life. The Louis Vuitton staff also helped clear up the wider planting site by hauling back excess equipment and packaging from trees and tree guards.

Hosted by TENT, Louis Vuitton employees then visited Alladale Wilderness Reserve the following day to witness a native woodland restoration effort that began way back in 2002. Sat in the center of the Kyle catchment, more than one million native trees have been replanted along Alladale’s two Highland glens as part of a broader pioneering effort to restore the Scottish ecosystem.

Louis Vuitton, The European Nature Trust, Kyle of Sutherland Fisheries Trust and The Banister Charitable Trust have recently committed match-funding to construct a community tree nursery in Ardgay, which is currently seeking planning permission. If successful, in the long-term, the nursery will help fuel the Kyle Riverwoods project with native riverbank tree species of local provenance, which can be difficult to source from large commercial tree nurseries. The tree nursery initiative would provide an opportunity for volunteers to engage with local nature restoration. Seed collection and nursery care would provide a focal point for environmental awareness, connecting people to the headwaters of the rivers upon which they live.

If planning permission is granted, a local nursery manager will be appointed who will be given the freedom to design the layout of the nursery from scratch. The proposed site is approximately 0.2ha and would be expected to produce at least 5,000 trees per year once established, with space for future expansion built into the plans.

The Ardgay community tree nursery will draw inspiration from other productive nurseries in Scotland, including the Trees for Life nursery and the Little Assynt nursery at Lochinver. There are not yet any major commercial nurseries in the North Highlands and the nearest small-scale facilities are Little Assynt (46 miles by road) and Dundreggan (67 miles by road). A nursery in Ardgay would dramatically reduce biosecurity risk by sourcing and growing trees locally. Due to Brexit, COVID-19, tree disease and the clamour for trees since COP26, supply of certain native species in the UK is expensive, and extremely limited with several key species such as aspen very rarely available. A local tree nursery will dramatically reduce the impact these issues have on mobilising tree planting projects, providing much-needed tree sapling stock.

Little Assynt Tree Nursery, Coigach and Assynt Living Landscape

If you would like to find out more please feel free to contact us or visit our office in the centre of Ardgay to say hello.

Our application for planning permission can be found at the following web page:

Change of use of disused land to tree nursery


Potential small native tree nursery site in Ardgay

Guardians Of Our Rivers – Free Training

Freshwater invertebrate training - Kyle of Sutherland - June 2023

Buglife - The Invertebrate Conservation Trust have kindly offered to deliver free training to volunteers as part of the Guardians of Our Rivers project. Kyle of Sutherland Fisheries Trust would like to increase monitoring of aquatic invertebrates within the district to better understand the effects of climate change on the river environment and on the aquatic invertebrate populations, upon which the fish populations depend for food, especially during spring.

If you are interested in getting involved, to help us find the best date in June, please send us your preference for weekday, weekend or evening training.

The training is 6 hours altogether (3 hours theory via Zoom or in person, and 3 hours face to face at a monitoring site of your choice). The training and support are free.  Kit can be provided for groups with no access to funds.  Kit can be found here Riverfly Partnership Approved Kit | NHBS Datenerfassung und Monitoring.

For further information see the Guardians of our Rivers - Buglife projects. For example, Riverfly on the Esk now have 16 monitoring sites and 51 trained volunteers enabling catchment scale monitoring to be realised. For further information see Riverfly on the Esk | Scotland's environment web

Guardians of our Rivers jpeg

1.6km of the River Tirry and 500m of the Allt Chaisegail tributary have been restored by planting native trees. The Tirry catchment is largely devoid of native riverbank woodland which provides shade, nutrients, and improved habitat. Once established, the project will make a significant contribution to the overall native riparian woodland cover on the River Tirry.

The River Tirry is home to a recovering Atlantic salmon population, producing an estimated 5,000 smolt emigrants annually. Much of the upper catchment is identified via the Scotland River Temperature Monitoring Network as being extremely vulnerable to rising water temperatures.

Kyle of Sutherland Fisheries Trust worked together with three different landowners (Shinness Estate, Lairg Estate and a further private landholding) to plan and execute a complex ‘ultra-riparian’ planting project. Voles, brown hares, sika and roe deer were present in numbers so a range of different tree protection measures were deployed. Alder and willow species were planted closest to the waterline, protected by small biodegradable guards. Birch, hazel and aspen were planted slightly further back from the river, protected by 1.5m tree guards. Within a deer fenced part of the site, only voles and brown hares posed a risk so less protection was required. Alder, being the least palatable species was planted freely along the riverbank.

Within a deer fenced section, alder planted freely and small tubes protecting willow, hazel, birch and aspen.

Tirryside provides home to numerous species of birds including critically endangered waders so Kyle of Sutherland Fisheries Trust worked closely together with RSPB to plant using a low density ‘clumped’ design, providing naturalistic flight pathways for wading birds, also serving as open canopy spaces for water voles. Areas near to existing remnants of broadleaves and Scots pine were left unplanted to allow natural regeneration with the sensitive planting carried out by contractors, Alexander Forestry.

Ongoing monitoring is planned, including tree establishment and browsing pressure, aquatic invertebrates, breeding birds, fish populations and fixed point photography.

The project is funded by Kyle of Sutherland Fisheries Trust and Mossy Earth, with a generous contribution of tree guards having been made by The Woodland Trust.

Plans are well underway for catchment-scale restoration with Shinness Estate. During 2022 Shinness Estate, working together with neighboring estates, commissioned a herbivore population census using a thermal drone. This census indicated high densities of non-native sika deer in the lower catchment and high densities of red deer in areas of the upper catchment, preventing natural regeneration of woodlands. A 5-year deer management plan has been established.

Map above showing restored areas in green.

River Tirry looking north to Tirryside Broch

Biodegradable browser protection deployed within the flood zone

Using a donation from Mossy Earth, Kyle of Sutherland Fisheries Trust have provided Forestry & Land Scotland (FLS) with 4400 alder, grey willow, goat willow, hazel and birch. The planting contributed towards a much larger ‘forest to bog’ and woodland restoration programme taking place north of Lairg in the River Tirry catchment. Further information can be found in FLS’s management plan and future habitat map.

River Tirry tributaries provide important spawning and rearing habitat for salmon and trout. Further to existing salmonid survey locations, in collaboration with FLS we hope to monitor water temperature and aquatic invertebrate populations in this area as this tributary-scale restoration effort gathers pace.

Native tree planting and peatland restoration by Forestry & Land Scotland

The European Nature Trust (TENT) has joined Kyle of Sutherland Fisheries Trust as a partner on the Kyle Riverwoods project. Further to a generous donation to help accelerate riparian woodland restoration efforts, TENT will be helping us tell the story of why riverbank habitats are in urgent need of restoration using film and digital media.

In May 2022, The European Nature Trust hosted the London premiere of Riverwoods: An Untold Story. Produced by SCOTLAND: The Big Picture. The film explored the perilous state of Scotland’s Atlantic salmon, and how they rely on a healthy riverbank environment to survive.

More than half of the proceeds from the Riverwoods Premiere event were donated to the Kyle Riverwoods project, with the remainder being utilised to commission SCOTLAND: The Big Picture to document the project.

TENT are currently working on several collaborations with businesses to help further accelerate the scale of woodland restoration across Kyle of Sutherland’s rivers. For example, TENT introduced our tree nursery initiative to Louis Vuitton staff members, resulting in a promising partnership.

Neighbouring landowners have also been invited to visit Alladale Wilderness Reserve to view expanding woodlands and hear about the wide range of jobs that have been created and people engaged. Read more about the partnership on the TENT website.

TENT joins existing Kyle Riverwoods partners The Fishmongers’ Company and Mossy Earth. The Fishmongers’ Company have supported Kyle of Sutherland Fisheries Trust for several years and have also funded the provision of expert riverbank woodland advice and deer management planning advice to participating landowners. Mossy Earth has generously sponsored our tree planting efforts each winter since 2021.

Native woodland restoration in Gleann Mor, Alladale Wilderness Reserve

In April we welcomed Clementine Leemans for 6 months as part of the Working With Rivers Scheme funded by Graduate Career Advantage Scotland and established in 2022 by NatureScot. Clementine will be immersed in all aspects of river restoration while working half of her time on the Kyle Riverwoods Project and half on fisheries restoration and monitoring.

Originally from Belgium, Clementine has a Masters in Conservation Biology from Lund University in Sweden where she studied the influence of moose, red, roe and fallow deer densities on woodland vegetation. Clementine also has experience in native bird conservation and invasive species control in New Zealand, further to newt, reptile, bat, badger and dormice surveys and translocations in the UK.

Since starting in early May Clementine has been getting to know the catchment and taking part in Riverwoods site surveys and planning herbivore impact assessments. She has also been mapping the extent of native riverbank woodland in each of the five main river systems flowing into the Kyle of Sutherland.

Clementine has many personal interests include hillwalking, cycling, botany and sewing.

Baseline river invertebrate sampling on the River Oykel SAC at the downstream end of a new planting site, May 2023

Introducing The Kyle Riverwoods Project

The Kyle Riverwoods Project was initiated in 2021 by Kyle of Sutherland Fisheries Trust (KoSFT). The purpose is to create a network of healthy riparian woodland across the rivers of The Kyle of Sutherland. These habitats could deliver a range of benefits including flood protection, good water quality and improvements for threatened fish populations, as well as helping to shield against climate change and biodiversity loss. Essential to Atlantic salmon and trout, riparian trees can also support invertebrates, bats, otters and many bird species.

Social and economic drivers are also central to the Kyle Riverwoods project. For example, if the ability of the Kyle of Sutherland rivers to provide a home for Atlantic salmon was lost, 86 full-time-equivalent jobs would also be lost, doubling rural unemployment within the Kyle area, and damaging the fabric of local villages originally founded upon plentiful salmon runs.

Kyle of Sutherland Fisheries Trust is aiming to encourage, influence and deliver riparian restoration schemes, under a nationwide 'Riverwoods' initiative. Work will focus on restoring a network of riverbank woodlands across burns within the Carron, Oykel, Cassley, Shin and Evelix catchments. As a small charity, KoSFT does not have the resources to deliver the required restoration ourselves so we are looking to help facilitate any restoration efforts by landowners and managers within the district.

Grey wagtail and alder leaves
Grey wagtail and alder leaves

Rivers in Crisis

Scotland is predicted to have hotter, drier summers and more extreme flooding in winter. Shallow, wide Highland burns are shown to experience comparatively severe increases in water temperature. Streams aligned north-south and lacking in shade from native riparian trees are most vulnerable to warming temperatures, with juvenile Atlantic Salmon experiencing significant stress when water temperatures rise above 23°C. The UK Met Office predicts that severe heatwaves will occur every other year by 2050 if current climate trends continue. Trout temperature thresholds are even more sensitive than those of Atlantic Salmon and temperatures are already damaging invertebrate communities, thereby reducing the availability of food for juvenile fish.

Due to a range of pressures, Scotland has lost more than 95% of its former native woodland cover in recent centuries. Furthermore, according to the Native Woodland Survey of Scotland, more than 60% of our remaining native woodland habitat is significantly impacted by herbivores, preventing natural regeneration.

The most biodiverse place in the UK is a Caledonian pinewood, with 5000 species and counting. Scotland has lost 99% of its Caledonian pinewoods, with the Kyle of Sutherland area home to the most northerly remnant. These fragments need urgent protection before their ability to naturally regenerate is lost.

Native woodland remains in less than 20% of the Kyle of Sutherland district area. Our own analysis indicates that native riverbank woodland cover in catchments Carron, Oykel, Cassley and Shin ranges from 4 to 8%.  Encouragingly, approximately 19% of the River Evelix and its tributaries are shielded by a native woodland corridor.

Degraded peatland scars many upland areas, with severe herbivore damage hindering restoration efforts in places. Peatland restoration priorities continue to be assessed via the PeatlandAction project, with KoSFT looking to influence further projects by communicating the importance of healthy peatlands.

Read our other news stories to find out about our progress so far.

Tree planting on the Allt Chaisegail tributary, April 2023

For our planting projects we are increasingly looking to biodegradable shelters and/or herbivore management to reduce the need for using tree guards. Traditional plastic tree guards are often described as single-use but with care and good timing, can be removed from established trees and redeployed, allowing two or even three trees to be protected by a single guard. At end-of-life, Kyle of Sutherland Fisheries Trust also pay for guards to be recycled via the Tubex Recycling programme. This process currently works out at 10p per guard.  We are also hoping that a recycling hub will be set up in the North of Scotland (as has been done elsewhere), to reduce or remove this cost.

In 2016 Kyle of Sutherland District Salmon Fishery Board staff planted locally sourced birch, juniper, alder and willow trees to create seed sources and riparian buffer zones along several kilometres of the Strath Seasgaich and Allt Eileag, tributaries of the River Oykel SAC. The planting was part of the EU LIFE-funded Pearls in Peril project, delivered in collaboration with Forestry & Land Scotland.

During winter 2022-23 Fisheries Trust and Board staff have been documenting success rates, carrying out maintenance on the trees and removing tree shelters, while retaining tree stakes where required for stability. Overall, success rates have been excellent with many groups of trees thriving and some trees reaching 4m in height. Biodegradable tree stake ties made of jute have been deployed to support trees after removal of guards. 1.8m recovered guards have been cut down to create 1.2m and 0.6m guards which have already been deployed to protect newly planted trees at Tirryside. Where guards are damaged these are being recycled.

Fisheries staff recovering tree guards before re-staking trees with biodegradable ties to provide stability as trees establish.


Watson Fellowship volunteer Dylan Morse from New York helping for 2 weeks while traveling around the 'salmosphere' learning about atlantic salmon conservation.

Map showing the locations of groups of trees planted on two tributaries in 2016 (blue pins)