Hard Times for our Rivers

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What does a polluted river look like? That’s easy, right? The water would be murky and foul-smelling, and fish would be found belly up, snagged by tree branches in the shallows. No vegetation would grace the channel, only human detritus – cans, food waste, maybe the occasional shopping trolley. River pollution is something our urban friends have to suffer, not those of us living in the countryside.

Indeed, the River Quaggy, which runs through Lewisham in southeast London, ticks many of these boxes. Shopping trolleys are particularly rife, or so I’m told by a friend who likes to photograph the many kingfishers that live on this stretch of water and like using the trolleys as a perch when fishing for the minnows who gather in its shelter. Because that’s the strange thing about pollution – what you see tells only part of the story.

These days the Arle runs crystal clear as always, its channel full of native brown trout. How could it possibly be polluted? And yet, talk to anyone who has known the river for years and you’ll hear a story of decline. Trout populations may be holding up, but eels are rarely seen these days. Growing up on the river in the seventies and eighties, I remember moonlit nights when the whole river seemed to be comprised of their serpentine bodies. Last year I counted us lucky when a census of eel populations found eight individuals on the same 100 metre stretch of river – at least they’re still hanging on. The Environment Agency’s line appears to be ‘everything is fine’, but I’ve seen sticklebacks, dippers, crayfish, lapwings and voles disappear from the stretch where I grew up, and this year the bow wave of fleeing moorhens which would regularly greet me as I drove up to my mother’s house near the watercress beds on the edge of town – even they have disappeared. I know they were there this time last year because I remember picking out a water rail among them, but now, all those unused cressbeds which are usually teeming with invertebrate life, seem to support only one bird.

The river might still be a thing of beauty, but other voices, the Wildlife Trusts and Salmon and Trout Conservation, to name two, feel that its ability to sustain the complex web of life that exists in the chalkstream habitat is collapsing, and may without urgent action be soon destroyed forever. In summer obvious signs of its degradation become apparent, when algal growth and sewage fungus coat the stones, allowing us to see the extent of nitrate and phosphate enrichment, but even at this time of year you might search in vain as I have recently for populations of the keystone species Gammarus pulex, a little freshwater shrimp which used to be present in tens of thousands under stones and amongst the stems and roots of the ubiquitous fool’s watercress.
From a global context, chalkstreams are enormously rare. The exact figures vary depending on who is doing the telling, but of about 200 chalkstreams worldwide, we have 85% of them. It is their misfortune to be clustered in Southern England where pressure from development, agriculture and abstraction demands is highest, making them surely among the most threatened habitats on earth. At the risk of venturing into the realm of the fanciful, take the area of the Itchen as a percentage of all chalkstreams – let’s say for the sake of simplicity 0.5% or 1/200th of total global chalkstream habitat – and scale it up to the size it would be if we were considering a rainforest that comprised 0.5% of the total amount of rainforest we have left. It would then be tens of thousands of miles long, rather than a meagre 33 miles. But 33 miles is all we have, even with all its tributaries included, so a little extra solicitude seems right and proportionate.

In an ideal parallel universe we might not have chosen to site a large market town in the headwaters of one of the most beautiful rivers in England, still less to allow it further growth. In an ideal parallel universe the idea of allowing a salad washing plant such as the one at The Nythe, Bighton Lane to flush whatever chemicals their globally-sourced produce should carry into a spring-fed watercourse, might be considered the most ludicrous act of vandalism conceivable. And in that universe it would be an utter dereliction of duty to permit Southern Water and other bodies the abstraction licenses that have so radically diminished the flow of our river. We might have instead conferred the status of Unesco Biosphere Reserve on the whole Itchen Valley, making an element of conservation part of our daily life in this blessed place, not out of nimbyism or an irrational hatred of all development, but in recognition that we live in an area that is utterly unique.

It is true, and laudable, that work is underway to limit and contain phosphate and nitrate pollution from intensive arable farming and roadside runoff. But inputs of phosphates from domestic sources remain huge, and many people are still ignorant of both the scale of the problem, and how easy it is to cut back on phosphate use with simple changes to behaviour and buying habits. We need a local campaign to focus on the issue, raise awareness and maybe even persuade local supermarkets to stop selling phosphate-rich dishwater tablets, which remain the single largest source of domestic phosphate pollution.

As far as things go in this land of fences and walls, the Arle is a pretty democratic river. About 50% of its length is open for us all to enjoy, and it is an inspiring place to visit at any season – a short walk from my doorstep yesterday took me past gadwalls, a water rail, perch and grayling. Despite the enormous challenges that the river faces, there is a feeling of optimism in the air. People are beginning to come together to make a change, and those of us who lived through the bad old days of organophosphate pesticides and unregulated fertiliser application know that the river does have the capacity to bounce back, just like the River Quaggy. As Ali Morse of the Wildlife Trust said at the recent meeting hosted by the Alresford Society, one of the greatest dangers to the river is people’s indifference, but the 2.2 million pounds recently sourced from the Heritage Lottery Fund will doubtless do great work in opening it up for many who haven’t yet experienced its wonder. It would be such a tragedy if our river’s demise was hastened along by a lack of concern from people unaware of the riches on their doorstep, so let’s all make sure that is not its fate by getting to know its wildlife, and coming together to help in its conservation.

BY PETE FLOOD