The Environment Agency, along with a variety of partner organisations, is celebrating 10 years of successful soft engineering along rivers in Cumbria, England

The UK is known for its unpredictable weather. One minute we’ve got sunshine, and then suddenly a downpour of rain. Unfortunately, mass rainfall can lead to river levels rising and banks bursting, putting lives at risk and severely damaging domestic and commercial properties.

Earlier this year, Operations Engineer highlighted a range of products and equipment that can aid in flooding scenarios – before, during and after they happen (see box). However, river management, or flood management, is another strategy that can be deployed to try and tame the environment.

Flood management techniques can typically be divided into two options: hard engineering and soft engineering. Hard engineering involves building artificial structures such as dams and embankments, while soft engineering instead takes a more sustainable and natural approach to managing the potential for flooding.

Both have their advantages and disadvantages. It is said that hard engineering, for example, can often be more effective at preventing flooding, but some methods are very expensive, can harm the environment and destroy habitats. Soft engineering, meanwhile, is environmentally friendly, aesthetically pleasing and requires less maintenance, but can also be less effective than hard engineering and take a lot of time.

Both techniques will, of course, have their supporters, but it is true to say that a major focus for many people and companies in recent years has been around environmental protection. Indeed, this year, the Environment Agency is celebrating 10 years of successfully using the soft engineering method alongside rivers in Cumbria, north-west England. A variety of techniques have been used at different locations, including river restoration, tree planting and habitat creation (more details below).

The works, funded through fishing licence sales, are said to have improved habitats and water quality, protected fish and got more people outside throughout Cumbria and the Scottish borders. “This has been a great programme to work on over the last 10 years,” says Environment Agency project lead Mike Farrell, “it’s good to see that all our hard work has paid off.”

The numbers are certainly impressive: in total, 130 projects involving 219 different partner organisations, such as school pupils, local angling clubs, associations and environmentalists, have been completed over the 10 year period. But what sort of soft engineering techniques have been used?

As part of the works, the Environment Agency has coordinated the planting of some 31,995 trees across the county. This is said to be providing a range of benefits for both residents and the wildlife, including river bank stabilisation and slowing the flow of the river, to new shaded areas to help boost fish populations.

The programme has also introduced more than 2,072 metres of willow to protect banks from erosion, as well as 44,141 metres of fencing along water courses. This helps to create riparian strips (an area where land meets water) and wildlife corridors. Furthermore, it also allows natural rejuvenation of the river banks, contributes to natural flood management due to re-profiling of the river banks and also decreases the amount of sediment that goes into the river.

Along with this, the project has also introduced 58 sections of woody material debris and management of gravel beds to provide shelter for young fish and create channel diversity, encouraging fish species to naturally breed and ultimately leading to a higher number of fish in the rivers.


Among the many organisations to have worked alongside the Environment Agency on the project are the River Ellen Angling Association, as well as hundreds of children from 15 schools across Cumbria, Nottingham and Sunderland.

Students from Sunderland attend with Derwent Hill outdoor education centre in Cumbria. Matthew Ellis, director for the centre, explains: “In the last three years, we are very proud to have planted over 2,000 trees and engaged in real projects, such as shoring up river banks after devastating floods.”

Another school to have engaged in the project is Oak Field School, a school for children aged between three and 19 years with severe learning difficulties. A spokesperson for Oak Field School explains: “The students have planted trees and cleared Himalayan Balsam (described by the Royal Horticultural Society as a major weed problem, especially on riverbanks (

“It has been an amazing and successful project to be involved in over the years, giving the young people the confidence and the experience of working together to put something back into the environment. The students learned a lot about the need to care for the countryside and the impact that conservation has on the local environment.”

It is clear that this long-term project has been rewarding for all parties involved, and shows what can be achieved when people from different organisations work side by side. As Farrell concludes: “It really is amazing what can be done when we all come together. Looking back and seeing work we implemented 10 years ago thriving and working to its best potential is certainly rewarding and makes all the hard work from everyone involved totally worth it.”