Willow Spiling – A Traditional, Natural Solution to riverbank Erosion in the heart of Edinburgh

Read how we worked to develop a project at Roseburn to create a 'nature based solution' to erosion

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Willow Spiling is the traditional technique of preventing soil eroding from riverbanks.  Willow rods are woven between living uprights and then backfilled so that the willow can grow into the bank vertically and horizontally.  This technique is a natural solution to the problem of riverbank erosion.  Hard engineering solutions take the form of gabions and walls, which is sometimes unavoidable, but rarely good for the river’s natural environment.  The use of natural /native material in spiling creates a habitat on the riverbank as well as a habitat for fish in the river.  No machinery is used and as the years go by the structure gets stronger rather than weaker as the willow grows and gets more established.  It sounds like a fairy tale, so imagine our delight at the opportunity to practice this skill right in the middle of Edinburgh.

Our Conservation and Volunteers’ Officer (Charlotte Neary) has carried out spiling projects in the past with two other likeminded organisations, Friends of the Pentlands and Earth Calling.   When a request for Spiling by a Roseburn resident came in just before Christmas she was in a good position to help.  Following a site visit Charlotte made a few calls and got the band (WOLCT, Earth Calling and FoP) back together for an epic 25-meter spiling project just downstream of Roseburn Pedestrian Bridge.

Before the project could get the go ahead, they checked the riverbed was suitable to accommodate 5-year-old living willow stakes.  A pinch bar told the team everything they needed to know so charlotte spent two weeks surveying the bank to check that no wildlife would be harmed by the project.  Dates were set right at the end of spiling season (December -March) for the best possible weather window, willow was ordered and everyone kept their fingers crossed for river levels to stay low during the project. 

The elements were on their side and over 7 days ,18 people came on board to help.  Gus Egan who owns Earth Calling was the spiling expert.  He brought along two members of staff to help.  Charlotte brought 17 volunteers (including experienced spiler Ian Combe from FoP and the Roseburn resident) to learn the skill and help prepare, weave willow, bang in stakes and back fill 90 wheelbarrows of stone and soil. 

The bank is steep.  Bringing in machinery was not an option.  1000 rods of 2-year-old willow, 40 5-year-old willow stakes and 6 ton bags of soil and stone were all gently put into place by hand.   As protection, 25 meter of erosion blanket was pinned into place to help secure the bank while the willow gets established.

It was an amazing experience.  Wholesome hard work.  Thank you to Heather for giving us the opportunity to share this traditional skill with our volunteers.  Thank you to Gus and Ian for being there the whole way through and whose knowledge and skill made the project possible.  Thank you to Rob Eves for proving the beautiful willow and The Edinburgh Builders Supply Company for delivering right onsite despite the road works.  Thank you to the understanding crew who were working on the road that safely held traffic to allow deliveries to come in and thank you to ALL the volunteers and staff that helped.  Many hands made light and happy work.  

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