Day out: Afon Dyfrdwy (River Dee), Denbighshire

Afon Dyfrdwy is the largest river in North Wales, but its wildlife is suffering. Find out all about a project that aims to restore it to its natural state, before ambling its autumn banks

Autumn colours and leaves on the trees

Springing from hills south-west of Llyn Tegid through which it flows, Afon Dyfrdwy (the River Dee) capers across Wales to the border, then dances north to Chester before flowing into the waterway that separates North Wales from the Wirral. 

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Estuary salt, sand and silt are hard to reconcile with the clear chattering waters upstream. But the contrast is one that salmonids (Atlantic salmon and sea trout), which are heading upriver now to spawn, know well.

Horseshoe Falls waterfall in river
The distinctive curve of Horseshoe Falls, designed by Thomas Telford in the early 19th century, allows 12 million gallons of water to enter the Llangollen Canal daily
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Wildlife and restoration of the Afon Dyfrdwy

Afon Dyfrdwy is also known for its aquatic plants and invertebrates, freshwater pearl mussels and all three types of lamprey – brook, river and sea. They are all at risk, of course, biodiversity collapse being what it is. Nevertheless, the LIFE Dee River project aims to restore the river’s health and habitats.

Constraints to fish migration are being removed, and agriculture and forestry practices improved, to reduce input of nutrients and sediment. And the freshwater pearl mussels – whose larvae hitch a ride on the gills of salmonids before dropping on to the riverbed where they can live for 120 years or more – will be captive-reared and released. 

Afon Dyfrdwy walk

Between Corwen and Llangollen, the increase in river gradient encourages the growth of bryophytes. It is also along this stretch that you find Llwybr Dyffryn Dyfrdwy – the Dee Valley Way. The walk is vigorous and varied, and usually within sight of the river. A silver vignette between trees here, a meander far below there. From Corwen, the path ducks beneath pedunculate oaks. From Carrog, it climbs the cinnamon-coloured black grouse moorlands of Mynydd Llantysilio. And at Horseshoe Falls, you experience briefly the ozone-saturated euphoria of walking between the river and Llangollen Canal. 

Bridge over river in autumn
Pontcysyllte Aqueduct and Llangollen Canal in Wales
Alamy
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But my favourite place to view Afon Dyfrdwy is at the walk’s end in Llangollen, from the decking outside the Corn Mill. Here it douses you with white noise and spray as it cavorts over rocks, around tussocky islands and beneath the old town bridge, all bristling with sedums, grasses and mosses. Here you will see herons. And of course, if you are lucky, and if the salmon are lucky, you may see them too, flipping, jumping and powering upriver to their spawning grounds.