Chalkstreams in Crisis – England’s Shame

Sorry about the absence. Been a bit tied up organising this week’s Chalkstream Summit down in Hampshire…

Mark Lloyd, George Hollingbery MP and the 'expert' panel
Mark Lloyd, George Hollingbery MP and the ‘expert’ panel at the Chalkstream Summit

We packed out the Grosvenor Hotel in Stockbridge with over 100 of the top figures in English fly-fishing and river conservation at special summit organised by the Angling Trust and the Salmon and Trout Association to discuss the plight of English chalkstreams. Of these unique rivers, 85% are situated in England, mainly in the South, with the most famous being the Test, Itchen and Avon in Hampshire and which were once considered to offer the finest trout and river fishing fishing in the world.

Chalkstreams are internationally significant habitats which are wilting under extreme pressure from diffuse pollution, abstraction and habitat damage. Many came close to an environmental disaster during last year’s drought and were only saved by exceptional rainfall during the summer of 2012. Our stewardship of these precious world class environmental assets has been nothing short of shocking with over one third of our rivers are at risk of significant damage from over-abstraction. As my old mate and fishing MP Charles Walker said on Monday ‘we are only too ready to lecture Brazil on how they should take better care of their unique rainforests but own record of protecting the majority of the planet’s chalkstreams is nothing short of shameful.’

This now becoming a legal issue for if the UK does not address unsustainable abstraction we will be at risk of failing to meet our legal obligations laid down in the EU Habitats Directive and the Water Framework Directive.

Delegates getting briefed on problems facing the River Test
Delegates getting briefed on problems facing the River Test

The summit was chaired by George Hollingbery MP the Chairman of the All Party Parliamentary Angling Group, and addressed by leading conservationist Tony Juniper and Lords Environment Minister Rupert de Mauley who stood in for Richard Benyon who was called away to a funeral at the last moment. The day began with the showing of two films on the plight of chalkstreams made by award-winning film maker Hugh Miles. (See below for links to these great films) It concluded with a panel discussion with top officials from Defra and the Environment Agency along with representatives of the Angling Trust and the Salmon & Trout Association (S&TA). Participants at the summit included broadcaster and writer Charles Rangeley-Wilson, top flyfisher Charles Jardine, local river trust and wildlife groups, a number of MPs and many well known river keepers and fishery owners on the Test, Itchen, Kennet, Avon and other chalkstreams.

Paul Knight from the S&TA explaining why a legal challenge is being mounted in defence of the Avon catchment
Paul Knight from the S&TA explaining why a legal challenge is being mounted in defence of the Avon catchment as Tony Juniper looks on

Other speakers at the summit, included yours truly and Paul Knight, boss of the S&TA. We all called for radical reform of water resources and land use policy to enable all rivers to return to good ecological status free from damaging environmental impacts. It was agreed that a special Chalkstream Charter would be drawn up as a matter of urgency and presented to Environment Minister Richard Benyon early in the New Year.

Speaking to camera on a dried up Kennet riverbed in January 2012
Speaking to camera on a dried up Kennet riverbed in January 2012

The plain simple fact is that we have mismanaged water in this country for far too long. We fail to store this vital resource at times of plenty and then pump out the chalk aquifers during the all too frequent periods of drought. Check out these numbers from my area in the Thames Valley where the Kennet ran dry this winter.

Water Management – Utter madness

  • We are pumping the chalk aquifers dry. In Thames Valley 70% comes from groundwater sources
  • During the height of the last drought flows over Teddington weir dropped to 700 m litres a day
  • Two weeks later, after heavy rain, it was 22,000 m litres – all pouring out to sea
  • Despite a population increase of 50% in the South East no new reservoir has been built for over 40 years
  • The  ThamesValley is projected to be housing 300,000 more people over next 20yrs
  • 50% of all available rainfall is already licensed for abstraction.
What a Chalkstream should look like
What a Chalkstream should look like

Yes we need the government to make good its promise to reform abstraction licensing but more importantly we have manage our water for the benefit of the environment. That means cutting demand through compulsory metering and setting a realistic price which will allow for greater investment in infrastructure including new reservoirs and other storage facilities to collect run off as opposed to draining down the aquifers. Discharge consents for phosphates and other nasties need raising and unacceptable farming practices must end.

None of this is rocket science. If we stop causing harm mother nature will do the rest but we are running out of time.


6 thoughts on “Chalkstreams in Crisis – England’s Shame

  1. Hi Martin – great write up, thanks. A tip for the blog: when I one links to it from facebook, as I just did on the TAC page, facebook allows me to choose a “thumbnail” image alongside the link using one of the photos from your article. But it only offers the first 3 images in the article. Please always ensure that at least one of the hard-hitting images is in the top 3 so I can show that rather than people sitting in a meeting 🙂

    1. Cheers Ed…I’m a bit new to all this blogging malarkey and still an interweb numpty but I’ll try to remember that useful tip.

      Have a great xmas

  2. I have only just picked up this blogpost. I am sure you and the Trust are aware, but it is not only the Hampshire chalkstreams that are in trouble. Those in Hertfordshire are but a shadow of what they were even 50 years ago when I first saw them – and they were pretty bad then. Some do dry up in parts in the summer.

    1. Hi Roger

      Thanks for this..

      The Hertfordshire Chalkstreams were well represented at the summit and this is where we will launch the Charter next month.


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