Aquatic habitat improvement for rivers

We are Heathland Group Limited and its our mission to look after the environment in your river and to make it a better place for you, and the future generations that will want to enjoy our countryside.

The environment is the air you breathe, the ground you walk on and the water you drink. We work with businesses, landowners and individuals and our goal is to help make the environment healthier and cleaner for all to enjoy.

Aquatic Habitat improvement – Rivers

Due to the fact that plants are quite difficult to introduce and chemicals are swiftly flushed out of a river system, habitat improvement techniques used in areas of running water generally need to be physical structures.

As with still waters, it is important to develop a sustainable management plan by utilising the guidance offered by companies such as Heathland Aquatic Engineering. Firstly, assess the current state of the river before identifying and managing any polluting features or inputs. To ensure that the end result is sustainable it is essential to tackle the source of the problem in the river, before any habitat improvements commence.

Instream river advancement devices include those which modify or impound river flow (current deflectors, bank stabilisation devices, low dams and weirs etc.), devices that provide direct cover (artificial bank cover and submerged shelters) and those that enhance spawning areas.

Follow this link for more information on our full list of river services.

Modification of river habitats

Before commencing any of the modifications outlined on this page, you must gain permission from your local Environmental agency office – Heathland Aquatic Engineering can help with all enquiries. Your proposals need to be appropriate for your fishery, and for the management plan of the wider river basin. A geomorphological study may need to be carried out prior to any river and habitat work commencing. A geomorphological study of the river will look at the arrangement and characteristics of land forms and rocks near the river.

It is essential that any modification complies with current relevant legislation. You should only undertake any habitat improvement works where a reduction of the diversity and/or the natural extent of habitats has been caused by prior modifications or engineering of the river environment.

If you wish to carry out works to enhance or restore a river, you will require prior consent from the Environment Agency under:

  • Section 109 of the Water Resources Act ?(1991) – for watercourses that are designated as a main river;
  • Section 23 of the Land Drainage Act (1991) – ?for unclassified watercourses.?In some areas, you may possibly also require consent under the Land Drainage Byelaws.

Bank stabilisation devices

The erosion of river banks increase due to many different factors such as an increase in the amount of sediment found in rivers, which is often a direct result of erosion. However, bank erosion is a natural and important process in rivers. It is important to the development of  a river geomorphology, which in turn help the natural development of habitats. It is thanks to erosion that gravel is produced in many river systems. Therefore the stabilisation of river banks should only be considered if investigations show that erosion rates along the bank are far higher than they should be.  Before commencing bank manipulation it is imperative that river banks are checked for the presence of any protected species that may reside there, such as water voles.

An extensive range of materials and techniques are available for the purpose of river bank protection. The method of bank stabilisation used must be appropriate for the local environmental conditions.

Willow, reed or grass planting, known as soft protection, emulates natural conditions and encourages habitats for wildlife, whilst also helping to protect the river bank from erosion.

Intermediate protection methods possess some natural characteristics whilst provide physical protection for a riverbank. Examples include willow faggots and willow spiling. In some situations more robust techniques will need to be used although these will help a suitable environment to flourish.

Before commencing stabilisation work it is important to try and tackle the root cause of river bank  deterioration. For example, if bank-side deterioration is caused by over-grazing of the area, cattle access can be restricted by installing stock fencing. This will allow vegetation on the river bank to regrow and work as nature’s natural buffer to erosion.

Current deflectors

Current deflectors use the natural flow of the river to create riffles and pools. They must only be used in river systems where pool or river sequences would normally naturally occur but, due to modification or engineering, have been lost. A geomorphological study should be carried before any work starts as current deflectors can dramatically change the geomorphology of a river.

Current deflectors work by raising the level of water upstream of them. Using current deflectors to raise the water level can provide increased shelter for fish. Additionally siltation may occur slightly upstream where the water flow is slower. Downstream of the deflectors the water depth is reduced with the speed of the water increasing. It is important to position the deflectors correctly otherwise they can provide no benefit or, worse still, increase the level of erosion of the bank on the opposite side of the river. When correctly positioned, deflectors can be an effective tool in recreating the riffle and pool nature of a stream. However, when using current deflectors it is important to take measures to prevent any harm occurring to wildlife and, especially, protected species.


Gravels in a river provide ideal spawning areas for most species of Salmon and some coarse fish, such as Chub and Dace. These species of fish spawn on gravel where the substrate size and the depth, speed and temperature of the water are ideal. It is generally considered that manipulating the level of gravels within the river by methods such as dredging is not to be undertaken.   This ensures the safety of channel habitats which are homes to numerous species of birds, mammals, fish and plant, as well as protecting the geomorphology of the river.

Artificial cover devices

Shelter plays an important role as it increase habitat diversity and provides essential cover for prey and predator. Hedges, over- hanging banks, and bank vegetation are all natural types of shelter. However, artificial cover devices designed to serve the same function are also available. These are:

  1. Surface Floating overhanging platforms
  2. Platforms constructed above the water
  3. Smaller structures, such as fly boards.

Trees on the riverbank

Trees are an essential element of the environment. They play host to a large number of organisms including lichens, worms, fungi, liverworts, insects, mammals and birds. Trees also create cover for fish. Small feathery tree roots are used as a substrate for spawning. The tree canopy is home to an abundant level of insect life. Trees also help to protect riverbanks from increased erosion as well as providing added value to the landscape. Their shade can help to reduce the development of weed, reduce water temperatures and create areas of water with higher levels of dissolved oxygen.

The Land Drainage Act 1976 states that you must obtain the prior consent of the Environment Agency if you wish to plant any shrub, tree or other similar growth within 8 metres of the river bank.

In flood risk areas, it is important to take into careful consideration where it’s best to plant trees and bushes. Significant obstructions to flood flow must be avoided and, where required, access to the river must be available.

Trees and the environment

It is possible to increase the numbers of fish in an otherwise barren watercourse by planting trees. However, if too many trees are planted this can produce too much shade, which in turn can reduce the useful instream habitat for fish and supress vegetation. Planting a mix of tree sizes in batches along the fishery will reduce the chance of this occurring.

Bird nesting sites may be reduced by the clearing of scrub and any changes in coppicing methods may detrimentally affect local animal populations. A closed canopy may develop over extensive areas if coppicing is reduced. If this happens you may find that local dormice populations move away from the site as they do not like too much shade. It is a good idea to contact the Mammal Society to check if a dormouse population is known to reside at your site. Additionally, if coppiced areas are too big and leave large open gaps that they are unable to cross, then woodland animals may also be adversely affected.

You must not cut down or cut back trees that are used as roosting areas by bats. Contact your local bat conservation group or society if you are unsure if this is the case. Contact details for these groups can be found on the internet or by contacting your local wildlife trust. In addition to wildlife it is possible that the trees in the area may also have protection orders in place. Your local authority will be able to provide more information on this.

Planting trees

Guidance on how to plant and take care of trees is freely available. You can obtain guides from the Tree Council, The Forestry Commission, local authorities and the local Wildlife Trust. Only plant trees with the appropriate consent from the Environment Agency and the landowner’s permission. Obtaining permission from the Environment Agency is important as numerous areas have land drainage byelaws that regulate, and in some cases prohibit, the planting of trees on river banks. The tree-planting season is normally between November and March.


Grants are be available for planting trees, but are unlikely to be awarded for small numbers. If the proposed planting area is large enough, or if the planting site can be included in another larger scheme, then a grant may be awarded. Your local authority or the Forestry Commission will be able to provide further information on grants.

Improvement of access for anglers

Access for anglers can be improved by construction of fishing platforms. The Land Drainage Act 1976 states that you must obtain the consent of the Environment Agency before any construction of fishing platforms on a main river takes place. Care must be taken so that nature conservation sites are not damaged. Heathland Aquatic Engineering can give you advice and support with constructing angling platforms. Contact the British Disabled Angling Association for information about how best to improve access for disabled anglers.

We supply all our equipment and services to domestic and commercial clients throughout Norfolk, Suffolk, Essex, Kent, London and the United Kingdom. For more information and advice about improving or protecting a river environment, protecting again bank erosion, or advice on access improvement for anglers at fisheries and fisheries consultancy services, please email, call 0800 3891990.