Freshwater Forum, Vol 25, No 1 (2005)

The ecology of Bassenthwaite Lake (English Lake District)

Stephen Thackeray, Stephen Maberly, Ian Winfield


Bassenthwaite Lake is, in many ways, different from the other major lakes in the English Lake District: it is the most northerly, the shallowest, has the largest catchment and the shortest mean retention time. There is also considerable temporal variation in lake level. Although the lake is surrounded by rich lowland soils, the catchment is dominated by upland moor and improved pasture, underlain by four dominant soil types: well drained loam with bare rocks and scree, shallow acid upland peat, fine loam and thick acidic peat soils. The supply of catchment-derived sediment, and its recycling within the lake, has serious implications for water quality and for the ecology of this site. These sediments largely comprise inorganic material, and are believed to originate mainly from the high fells and the floodplain of the River Derwent.

Typically the lake thermally stratifies between May and September, and is mixed for the remainder of the year. However, the lake is only ever weakly stratified and episodic mixing events influence the ecology of the lake, by increasing the concentration of oxygen at depth and resuspending sediment in shallow water.

Palaeolimnological reconstruction of long-term changes in total phosphorus concentration has revealed that, over the past 250 years, the lake has become increasingly eutrophic, with increases in phosphorus concentration being particularly dramatic in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Though tertiary sewage treatment was implemented at Keswick (the principal town in the catchment) in 1995, there has been only a slight reduction in phosphorus concentration in the lake. At present, diffuse sources contribute more to the total phosphorus load than do point sources and it is suspected that efficient internal recycling of a relatively modest sediment store, caused by wind-driven resuspension, may be one reason for the limited reduction in phosphorus availability.