Looking down from a bridge over the River Sid into the fast flowing waters below, I am delighted if I see the glimmer of a fish swimming against the stream.  Our river is a historical home for trout and salmon.  Fish like these in our river are natural treasures and people are working towards restoring the natural populations.

Trout and salmon hatch in the headwaters of rivers, leaving the river to spend most of their adult life at sea, then returning to rivers to complete their life cycle.  Salmon will travel vast distances, some UK salmon cross the Atlantic to feed in Greenland waters before returning to the UK to spawn.  Sea trout spend much of their adult life at sea within a few miles of the mouth of their spawning river.  

Brown trout are the same species as sea trout but do not leave the river system in their lifetimes. Due to the years spent at sea, sea trout are larger, stronger and many times more fertile than a brown trout. They make a more significant contribution to the wild population in a river. 

Young trout feed on the invertebrates, enjoying the small bugs like mayfly and caddis fly larvae in particular.  Young fish are next up in the food chain, an abundant population of fish will mean many more of the top predators, kingfishers, herons and otters.  Bringing back migratory fish to the Sid will help restore the abundance of wildlife that is so important in the valley.

The Sid valley’s upstream geology feeds different sized stones and gravels into our river producing high-quality spawning grounds for trout and, once upon a time salmon.  An Environment Agency expert describes the River Sid as having a ‘wonderful fish habitat’.  

A volunteer group is monitoring river fly species throughout this year and the populations are quite good, but the trout population is low, and there are no salmon.  We have severely damaged the access for fish within our river, access they need to spawn, feed, shelter from predators and find safe places in flood conditions.

The River Sid has many weirs and rock ramps, many more per mile than the average UK river. These are important to slow the river down and help prevent flooding, but they are also an impediment to fish migration. 

At least six are impassable for fish, with many more lesser obstacles. Between Fortescue and the end of the Byes there are sixteen, mainly boulder weirs. The Wild Trout Trust estimates there is a ten percent restriction on fish passage at each obstacle.  The cumulative impact means that only two fish in ten will be able get to the best spawning grounds above Fortescue. 

The biggest impediment to fish passage is School Weir in the Byes. Built in the 1970s and nearly three metres in height, one of the highest weirs in the South West of England.  It is a completely impenetrable barrier to sea trout and salmon that wish to return to their spawning ground. 

A fish rescue at School Weir used to be carried out by the SVA, fish were netted and carried above the weir.  This had to be discontinued but fish have been seen trying to jump School Weir as recently as 2022. Sea trout are spawning in the very short section of river below School Weir instead but this is a wholly unsuitable habitat for young trout. 

The River Sid Catchment Group, with the Sid Valley Biodiversity Group, is hoping to get a fish passage reinstated at School Weir and modify other obstructions to allow easy fish passage up and down the river. This builds on work already undertaken by other agencies in the town over the years. The Environment Agency is also keen to see improvements on the Sid.

We will be presenting our plans for consultation in the forthcoming Sidmouth Biodiversity Festival in June. We look towards a future where the river is rich in wildlife and clean water is a given.

Charles Sinclair

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