The River Eden is entirely Cumbrian, it flows northwards from its source on the border of the North Yorkshire, arriving 90 miles later to form the spectacular Solway Firth. Meandering alongside the Pennines, and eastern Lake District Fells, the River Eden eventually passes through the historic city of Carlisle.
The Eden passes directly through the city, almost touching the city centre, bringing with it an incredible array of wildlife. We believe Carlisle is one of the best cities for wildlife encounters in the country, the River Caldew, and River Petteril join the Eden to bring riparian edges through city parks, brownfield sites, housing estates and farmland.
After a week of sub zero temperatures, the watery landscape had almost completely frozen, with higher temperatures forecast we headed out to follow the Eden’s path through Carlisle to discover the wildlife that calls it home. It was dark when we arrived, the air still frozen, Tesco’s delivery vans were being loaded, a pair of Blue Tits fed under the street lights, we squeezed through the gap in the hedge and headed towards the river.
The faint calls of Redwing could be heard amongst the ivy, frost crunched under foot, the M6 hummed over the hedge and ice plates moving along the river cracked and broke alongside each other. The light was dim, but we could hear the life on the river, occasionally picking up movement in the twilight.
Although this section of the river is only a short distance from the city, it’s a quiet place, with very little foot fall. Wildlife roosts, feeds and commutes too and from these meanders in the river, and this morning was no different. Wigeon, Teal and Mallard could be heard calling up ahead, ghostly outlines of Swans could be seen as the sun slowly rose. We skirted away from the river, to make sure we didn’t disturb the feeding wildfowl, after days of cold temperatures they needed every second of undisturbed feeding they could get.
The sun began to creep above the horizon, the M6 hummed ever louder, and the river began to come alive. More and more wildfowl could be seen on the open sections of water, hundreds of Wigeon fed in close flocks, joined by Mute Swan, Teal, Mallard, Moorhen, Goosander, Greylag Geese, Canada Geese, Goldeneye, Cormorant and an assortment of Gulls.
Amongst the hustle and bustle, a mass of white could been seen in the distance, Whooper Swans. To me Whooper Swans, especially their call, is the sound of the winter, the sound of the cold frosty days. Migrating from their summer breeding grounds in Iceland, these Whooper Swans winter on the River Eden, commuting to a select number of fields to feed each day, reliant on a very small area of land for their wintering success.
Creeping closer, using the topography of land to conceal our outlines, we edged for a better look. This was the Whoopers roost, right in the centre of the river, safe from any past, or present predators. Rousing for the day, their calls echoed across the cold landscape, outcompeting the now, roar, of the M6. In total the flock consisted of 42 birds, of which only 6 were young from this year. Whooper Swans travel together as a family, spending the winter in family groups, only two broods had made it from Iceland and back to this part of the Eden this winter.
The true call of the wild, Whooper Swans are usually wary and unsure of humans, unlike our resident Mute Swans they don’t approach us for food, yet they find a home on this section of the river, surrounded by a human presence. Walking along the river, it felt like we were in the wilds, not another soul insight, just a spectacular array of wildlife. In reality, cars and lorries streamed over the M6, I imagined their split second glimpse of the river, teeming with life, as they passed over, hoping it added a little wildness to their days.
The light rose, and the Whoopers began their commutes, heading to a small number of fields to feed during the day, returning to the river in the evening. Whoopers almost constantly communicate, a few at a time they use the calm water of the river to take flight, brushing past us at head height. A few at a time, pairs, family parties, eventually they had all left the river.
The icy morning was steadily heating up, the frost and ice began to thaw, revealing an endless variety of ice formations. Mini icebergs moved downstream, and the ducks began to find new feeding areas. The Wigeon began taking flight in small flocks, heading up and down river, amongst them stunning drake Goldeneye.
The mornings wildlife, light, and experience was incredible, some of the best time in nature I’ve ever had, but unknowingly, it hadn’t quite finished yet. Heading into the city, the light sparkled and glistened on the surface of the ice and frost. Illuminating the river, branches, and the path ahead.
The hum of the M6 quietened, replaced by the noise of the city. People now outnumbered the ducks on the river, walkers, joggers, dog walkers, golfers, a handful of photographers, all enjoying the cold pristine conditions. At the bridge over the river a crowd was peering over the edge, watching not one, but two of the River Eden’s and Carlisle’s star attractions.
Carlisle is one of the best places to watch Otters that I know, only a short distance from the city centre it’s not uncommon to spot an Otter going about its day. With the heavy, regular footfall of people, the Otters are well used to close encounters, performing for the masses. This morning was no different, a female Otter fished in the icy water, catching small fish, lamprey, and Brown Trout, as people watched from above. In the same view, a Kingfisher perched in a nearby willow, following the Otters movements.
A spectacle, fitting for any nature reserve, rewilded landscape, right in the urban landscape, a landscape quite often thought of as having no benefit to wildlife, no opportunity for people to connect. Many people on the bridge had never seen an Otter before, and had never seen a Kingfisher before, yet here, this morning, in their local area, both were on show. A communal excitement buzzed, stories were recounted, and memories made.