River Don – One of England’s finest salmon rivers  by Chris Firth MBE   29th July 2019

Chris Firth was born in Doncaster close to the banks of the River Don and early in life developed a pas­sion­ate interest in the river.  In 1975 he took up a post as a Fisheries Bailiff work­ing in the Lake District. In 1977 he moved to Beverley where he began work with the Yorkshire Water Authority as a Fisheries Inspector.  In 1983 he was pro­moted to Fisheries Officer based at Doncaster and, amongst his other duties, began work on the rehab­il­it­a­tion of the River Don and its fish­ery. In 1999, fol­low­ing dra­matic improve­ments in the envir­on­ment and eco­logy of the Don system, the Environment Agency pub­lished his book ‘Doomsday to the Dawn of the New Millennium’ an account of the demise and recov­ery of the fish pop­u­la­tions of the river. In 2000 he was awar­ded an MBE for ser­vices to Fisheries and the Environment.

In the six­teenth and sev­en­teenth cen­tur­ies there was so much salmon in the River Don that only poorest people ate salmon.  An indic­a­tion of this is that there were more otters along the river than any­where else in the north of England.  During the indus­trial revolu­tion, it became one of the most pol­luted rivers in England, but its decline star­ted much earlier.  To provide water power, low weirs were con­struc­ted across the river and these interfered with salmon move­ment.

In 1626 the Dutchman Cornelius Vermuyden star­ted the drain­ing of Hatfield Chase to the west of Doncaster.  The work involved the re-routing of the Rivers Don, Idle and Torne, and the con­struc­tion of drain­age chan­nels. It was not wholly suc­cess­ful, but changed the whole nature of a wide swathe of land includ­ing the Isle of Axholme and caused legal dis­putes for the rest of the cen­tury.

In 1732 a Parliamentary Act made the River Don a nav­ig­a­tion.  This encour­aged indus­trial devel­op­ment and bigger weirs were con­struc­ted that could not be tra­versed by salmon.  By 1790 there were no salmon reach­ing the river’s head waters.  By 1884 largely due to the surge of people to work in the new factor­ies, the river was grossly pol­luted and remained so for the next 120 years.

In 1975 Yorkshire Water took over the river but was mostly con­cerned with clean water supply.  In 1989 the organ­isa­tion was split into Yorkshire Water plc and the National Rivers Authority.  The latter was very con­cerned with improv­ing the River Don and began stock­ing the river with fish to act as indic­at­ors of pol­lu­tion and was more active in pro­sec­ut­ing pol­luters.  Work also began on con­struct­ing fish passes along the river system to permit salmon to reach fur­ther upstream.  £3m has been raised over 10 years for this work and last winter for the first time in cen­tur­ies, salmon were caught near Meadow Hall.  Funding has been alloc­ated for a fish pass for Masborough Weir in Rotherham and upon com­ple­tion of this pro­ject, all obstruc­tions for salmon below Sheffield will have been addressed.  It is hoped and expec­ted that the River Don will again sup­port a siz­able pop­u­la­tion of salmon in the near future.