The source of the River Girvan is Loch Girvan Eye, situated on the slopes of the Shalloch of Minnoch in the Galloway Hills, and only half a mile from the source of the Stinchar. The Girvan then flows through Lochs Cornish, Skelloch and Bradan, Ayrshire’s major water supply reservoir, before making a broad sweep north close to the villages of Straiton and Kirkmichael and then south-west past Crosshill and Dailly to reach the sea at Girvan. Upstream of Kirkmichael the Girvan is quite fast flowing with many rocky turbulent sections, whilst downstream the river has a more pastoral character with long pools interspersed with riffles.
The Girvan has a catchment area of approximately 250km2, considerably smaller than the neighbouring Doon and Stinchar. There are a number of tributaries including the Palmullan, Lamdoughty, Dyrock, Barlewan, Lindsayston and Penwhapple burns. The main land uses in the upper reaches are commercial forestry and rough grazing. In the lower reaches there is more intensive agriculture with very productive arable land along the coastal strip. There are a number of settlements along the river, mostly small villages, but also larger towns such as Maybole, all of which discharge treated sewage into the river. Despite that water quality is generally good with a range of invertebrates present, even in the lower reaches.
The underlying hard geology of the River Girvan is complex with limestone and sandstone dominant. There are several old limekilns in the area and old coal mines in the Dailly area. In 1979 there was a major pollution incident when groundwater from the abandoned Dalquharran mine at Dailly upwelled killing everything in the lower reaches of the river. This pollution incident is still considered to be one of the worst recorded in Scotland and the impact on salmon catches can be clearly seen in the catch return graphs.
The River Girvan is an excellent salmon and trout fishery with improving returns.
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- Main settlements within the catchment are Girvan, Dailly, Maybole, Crosshill, Kirkmichael and Straiton.
- Water is abstracted from Loch Braden to supply drinking water for much of Ayrshire. There is a compensation flow in place to maintain base flows as well as an agreement for freshets to aid fish migration. Penwhapple Reservoir also supplies water to local industry.
- There is a widespread duck mussel population in the middle and lower reaches and a recently discovered freshwater pearl population in the upper reaches.
Specimen of Ephemera danica found during invertebrate survey on Dyrock Burn, a first for Ayrshire.
- Sections in the middle river have been canalised resulting in a loss of river length and habitat diversity. At Dalquharran Castle a large meander was cut-off when a bypass channel was created.
- There are extensive stands of invasive Japanese Knotweed stands in the lower river.
- Principal fish species include salmon, trout, eels, minnows, stone loach, sticklebacks and lampreys (sea and brook). During the summer months there are numerous grey mullet in the harbour and tidal reaches.
Ayrshire Rivers Trust research and monitoring on the River Girvan includes:
- Annual electrofishing surveys on behalf of the River Girvan District Salmon Fishery Board (DSFB) to monitor salmon fry production in the main stem as well as a comprehensive survey of tributary sites.
- River Girvan Habitat survey published in 2003. This survey provided a detailed inventory of habitat type and quality, obstructions to migration as well as identifying priority areas for habitat restoration. The survey found that the main impacts on the river were canalisation, bankside erosion, and diffuse pollution. Priority areas for habitat restoration were identified.
- Habitat restoration works completed on the Dyrock Burn, leading to an immediate improvement in fish densities.
- Implementation of flow diversity improvement in previously dredged stretch in 2006.
- Lamprey survey as part of a national survey funded by SNH. Brook lampreys are widespread throughout the catchment. Sea lampreys are also known to spawn in the lower river.
- Invertebrate surveying introduced in 2005 to complement other data collected at electrofishing sites.
- Freshwater pearl mussels reported and confirmed in 2008.
- Installed fish passes on Girvan Dykes in 2011 to improve fish passage at the lower river.