About the River Spey

The Spey is a very special river for nature and people – well worth protecting. It is home to several threatened species, and is famous worldwide for its fishing and whisky. The whole catchment needs careful management to ensure its special qualities and the services it provides are preserved for the future.

Here are a few snippets of information about the Spey. If you want to fish the river, or find out more about its natural and cultural heritage, visit the Spey Fishery Board’s website.

A special river for nature

With a catchment area of over 3,000 km2 and over 36,500 km of rivers and tributaries, the Spey is Scotland’s third largest river.

The whole river is protected under European legislation as a Special Area of Conservation (SAC) in recognition of its importance for four threatened wildlife species, Atlantic salmon, otters, Freshwater pearl mussels and Sea lamprey. Many parts are also Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs) because of their outstanding nature, and about two thirds of the catchment lies inside the boundary of the Cairngorms National Park.

54% of the watercourses in the catchment are classified by the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA) as being in High or Good Condition (2019).

Insh Marshes in Strathspey is a celebrated wetland with biodiversity of international renown.

A special river for the people

Tourism, agriculture, forestry and food and drink are all important economic activities in the catchment, and over 50% of all Scotch whisky is distilled on the Spey.

Up to 70% of the water in the Spey is diverted from the upper catchment for generating hydro power.

Fishing, mainly for salmon and trout, is worth around £15million to the economy and provides jobs for about 370 people.

Increasing numbers of recreational users are enjoying fishing, canoeing, kayaking and rafting on the river and walking and cycling along it, including the long distance Speyside Way.

However, like most rivers the Spey faces its share of challenges…

As demand for renewable energy increases, there is more pressure to use the waters of the Spey for hydro power generation (up to 49% is abstracted from the upper catchment at times, which can interfere with the natural functioning of the river downstream, especially in low flow conditions).

Development, and growing population means more demand for drinking water and more treated sewage going back into the river, all of which requires new infrastructure, and careful management and monitoring to ensure the river is not harmed.

Climate change will mean hotter, drier summers and warmer, wetter winters for north-east Scotland. Low flows and peaks in water temperature in drought conditions, as were experienced in summer 2018, pose a potentially lethal threat to salmon and trout and are harmful to many other species, while increased intensity and frequency of storms and spates can cause flooding, excessive erosion and damage to the river’s ecology.

Because of the industries which have used the resources of the Spey for many years, along with the effects of surrounding land use and other factors, 24% of the Spey catchment is downgraded to Poor or Bad status under SEPA’s WFD classification (2019), though many of the worst sites are being tackled to make improvements. Find out more at SEPA’s water environment hub.