One million native trees are to be planted in one of the biggest nature restoration projects in the Cairngorms, in a new bid to rescue wild salmon stocks on a river where the the Queen owns a prime stretch of water.

The £5.5 million project, being led by the conservation charity The River Dee Trust, aims to recreate areas of landscape that have been lost for 2,000 years.

The aim is to help prevent a repetition of the high river temperatures which damaged young salmon stocks on the Upper Dee two years ago. 

The charity says it will provide nutrition and shelter for all river species and will encourage a wide range of wildlife to thrive in one of Scotland’s most stunning landscapes. 

In early July 2018, it was reported that the water temperature in the upper reaches of the river at the Geldie had reached 25C.

Sustained high temperatures above 25C are lethal to fish as the oxygen supply in the water drops and fish become unable to feed.

River managers on the Dee and Spey have previously demanded Scottish Government action after salmon catches have fallen to their lowest ever level.

On the Dee,  which runs through the the Queen’s Balmoral estate, anglers are now said to be taking around 3,000 salmon a year, down from almost 9,000 in 2010.

River Dee director Dr Lorraine Hawkins said: “Atlantic salmon are now virtually extinct across their southern European range and are vanishing fast in the south of England. All the major Scottish salmon rivers have seen drastic declines. At current rates, we may have just 20 years to save the species. 

“We know there are catastrophic losses at sea. Those factors must be tackled urgently. But we can take action now to give the young fish their best chance of survival before leaving their native rivers.”

Angling on the River Dee generates some £15m annually in revenues and supports an estimated 500 rural jobs.

Calls last year for more resources to be devoted to tackling the decline in the famous fish came after experts warned the survival of the species was now at “crisis point”.

Marine Scotland data revealed that salmon catches have dropped to their lowest level since records began in 1952.

HeraldScotland:

A fisherman casts on the lower Crathes beat on The River Dee on February 25, 2009 in Banchory, Scotland.

Across Scotland, the total reported catch through rod fishing is 37,196 for 2018, 67 per cent of the previous five-year average. The vast majority of these, 93%, were caught and then released back into the water.

The River Dee Trust and Dee District Salmon Fishery Board have already planted nearly 200,000 native trees along tributaries, working together with landowners including those on the Balmoral and Invercauld estates. 

The aim is to double the current rate of planting and reach the million tree target within 15 years. 

The main species to be planted are alder, willow, rowan, birch, aspen and Scots pine, which would have been common in the landscape thousands of years ago. 

“Several current projects should produce immediate benefits,” added Ms Hawkins of the latest initiative.

“But we must also provide shade against more of the extreme temperatures we have been told to expect, while restoring a whole ecosystem that’s been degraded over many centuries. This will help our threatened salmon, and all wildlife will benefit.

“Of all the major Scottish rivers, the Dee is especially vulnerable to extreme temperatures because of its land use. We are determined to do everything we can to help nature help itself.”

And work has already begun to plan more than 10,000 trees as part of efforts to prepare the River Dee for a climate emergency.

It is hoped a £350,000 award to two projects will also encourage people to visit the area and protect wildlife populations.

The Easter Beltie Restoration Project in the middle Dee will restore a section of the Beltie burn while habitat improvements to protect a variety of local fish and animals will made as part of the Dee Riparian Habitat Project.

The two Aberdeenshire projects were selected alongside 12 others across Scotland to share a £1.8m Scottish Natural Heritage fund.

The development came as anglers from across the globe prepared to cast their hopes on winning a coveted trophy recognising the best catch on the River Dee.

The award is not necessarily awarded to the angler who lands the heaviest fish, but judged by a committee who consider fish handling, time of year and the condition of the fish.

It will be presented at the opening of the River Dee on Saturday when actor and fishing aficionado Robson Green will cast off the 2020 season.