Next Steps for English Chalk Streams.

Redbourn Gauging Weir on the River Ver in May 2017: one of several Chilterns chalk streams still suffering from unsustainable abstraction. But maybe the tide has turned? Will the Ver be flowing properly again by 2027?

I’ve been asked by the Environment Agency, the Rivers Trust and CaBA to chair a national chalk stream restoration group whose first task will be to produce a national chalk stream restoration plan: it will be used to drive progress by government and regulators, water companies, landowners, NGOs and river associations right down to the grass roots level of individuals who are passionate about their local river … people like me.

So, a few weeks ago I was asked to talk about “Next Steps for English Chalk Streams” at the Chalk Stream Conference hosted by the Chilterns AONB. I discussed the same ideas earlier this week when Sir Charles Walker invited me to speak to the All Parliament Parliamentary Group of MPs for Chalk Streams.

I spoke about how there have been a number of action plans over the years and yet here we are … with our chalk streams still in crisis. I wonder what I can add to what has been said before, but will do my best. We are currently assembling a panel that is representative of the regulatory side of things, and of the water industry too and also of the national NGOs who have so long fought the good fight for chalk streams. I’m hoping the NGOs will drive ambition and that the regulators, and industry will respond positively to that vision. We will also draw on the expertise of a panel of experts in the field of chalk stream science, from hydrology to hydromorphology to ecology. Finally, we will share the drafts of our emerging action plan with a wide forum of stakeholders, from rivers trusts to grass roots river groups and individuals (I’m assembling that list and if you’re reading this and involved in a chalk stream advocacy group you’re probably on it, but drop me a line just in case).

You’ll see below in the words of my talk that I am keenly aware we need action above all else, that we have had action plans. But I think there is room to take stock of where we have got to and to analyse why certain key asks made again and again over the years have not been answered yet. I have some ideas as to why not.

Occasionally I have had a hand in previous reports on chalk streams: I helped WWF with their campaigns Rivers on the Edge and Flushed Away and with the 2014 State of England’s Chalk Streams report. But in terms of restoration plans I pulled together the plan that has driven our catchment restoration of the River Nar in Norfolk since about 2011. That’s the plan I can draw real life experience from.

And if I were to approach a national restoration plan as I have that local plan, I would say a vital first task is to break down the journey into assailable tasks, simply expressed. A lot of the ideas behind our Nar plan had been pulled together years before in the form of a much more involved and detailed plan that was brilliant in every respect other than in how it communicated its ideas to the places where they would actually make a difference: the general public. But that’s where the power to make change really resides. A growing sense that more and more people passionately care about chalk streams is what has driven the shift in tone and receptivity to change that we are seeing from our regulators right now.

Having worked out what needs to be done, we need to be strategic about the order in which we do things. Make a few early, doable and hopefully iconic gains and start to get a sense of the possible. I’d say we also need to be honest about the scale of the task, but not timid in the face of the realisation. We definitely need to be ambitious: but ambitious with an informed sense of what ambition actually means … and it doesn’t mean blaming everything on climate change, or publishing endless reports on systems-based thinking or coming up with more acronyms, or talking jargon behind closed doors. It means actually doing something, even if it’s a little thing and then doing another something, until all the little things add up to a big thing.

We’re not going to put our chalk streams back into excellent ecological health by next year, or the year after or even within five years and anyone who ever thought we could didn’t realise what was wrong with them. We’re certainly not going to do it by wishful thinking.

But river by river, reach by reach, we can do it. There are of course some things that could happen at a government and national level that would make a big difference: ending unsustainable abstraction as opposed to talking about ending unsustainable abstraction is one of them. Ending the scandal of CSO’s is another.

But maybe, just maybe this could happen … There’s been a surge of interest, lately, in the state of our chalk streams. All rivers being lovely, but chalk streams being potentially the loveliest of all. If you’re reading this blog you’ll already know that chalk streams are a very distinctive type of spring-fed river, almost unique to southern and eastern England. Between the beautifully named River Bride in Dorset and Yorkshire’s Gypsey Race there are just over 200 chalk streams ranging in size and character from the majestic River Test to hidden streams you’d have to almost fall in to notice, Lilliputian rivers with more lovely names like the Mel, Hiz or Gadder. They add up to most of the chalk streams in the world, a globally unique ecosystem that is ours to preserve and – because chalk streams have suffered greatly as south-eastern England has filled with people, business and industry – ours to restore to good ecological health. We seem to have really woken up recently to the duty we owe a natural environment that has suffered so much over recent decades.  But chalk streams feel to me like the ultimate test of our commitment. They are on our back door-step, they are struggling and they need protection. Are we up to it?

If so, what should the next steps be for our English chalk streams, steps that will lead them back to good health? Here’s my talk …

“As I often remind myself with regard to river restoration, to make good decisions about the future of a chalk stream, it is worth pausing to consider the past that has brought it to its current state. So, I hope you won’t mind if I spend a few minutes talking about next steps by talking about past steps. Because there’s a lot of frustration about what little progress we have made with regard to looking after our chalk streams. I want to consider why we are where we are, before offering some ideas on what we need to do next.

I fell in love with chalk streams many years ago, when I was given a Collins Encyclopaedia of Angling and found in it a picture of the River Lambourn: an ordinary little picture, nothing special, but one that captured that blowsy, English beauty of a summer’s day beside a brimful chalk-stream and which also captured my river-obsessed, childish imagination. 

Ten years later I moved to Dorset for my first job and fell in love with the wet reality of real chalk-streams. I started to fish them and to restore bits of them and this is where my exploration of the past begins, in the summer of 1995. 

Every day on the way to work I drove over a little chalk-stream called the River Tarrant. I got to know it very well. I rented half a mile of fishing from the farmer and would spend an hour or two there whenever I could. But this particular summer it started to dry, from the top down and from the bottom up, leaving a section in the middle full of magnificent trout caught in the trap of their drying river. 

The National Rivers Authority didn’t have the manpower to do much about it, but they did lend me some nets. So, as things got critical I went down there with my wife, Vicky, and together we netted the pools, rescuing the trout into buckets which we then put in the boot of my car and drove as fast as we dared down to the River Stour. Over a long week we rescued hundreds of trout against the clock of a vanishing river, until on the Saturday evening we had to stop, leaving one long pool only half done: it was late, and getting dark and we were totally exhausted. Vicky was heavily pregnant, after all. We’d get them the following morning, we thought. But by the next morning, it was too late. The pool had just vanished through the drying river bed, leaving dozens of trout, dead and dying in the mud.

I’ve sent my photos from that day to so many magazines that I have none left (slide film then and the magazines never return them) but I found this one online, taken by me in June 1995.

The River Tarrant had two abstraction stations on it: at the upper and lower ends of the river, exactly where the epicentres of the drying process had begun. I knew that abstraction had killed those fish, and I wrote angry letters to all and sundry saying as much. Vicky wrote an article in The Field

But in those days the official line was that abstraction didn’t actually cause chalk-streams to dry up or not enough to make the difference. Notwithstanding that I didn’t buy any of this – I did know that pulling trout out with nets and driving them around in buckets was not a sustainable way to protect them each time we had a dry summer. I also noticed that a pond beside the drying river had remained full all summer, simply because it was deep enough to pick up the groundwater that had deserted the perched river bed.

So, in between berating them about abstraction, I brokered a grant of £5000 from Wessex Water to excavate beside the river a series of inter-connected groundwater ponds into which I would put the rescued trout each summer and from which they could swim back to their chalk stream when the springs started to flow again. It was a no brainer scheme that couldn’t have but worked. But before I could get permission the Rivers Authority compelled me to commission a feasibility study including groundwater modelling. This study used up all my Wessex Water grant money and concluded that further research was necessary before we’d know the answer.

I learnt a lot that summer, about the issues facing chalk streams: the three-dimensional issues in the landscape, and the two-dimensional issues of the bureaucratic process which tends to complicate solutions to the point where nothing happens. You may have started to see how this story is a neat parable for explaining why, 25 years later, we are sadly still railing about unnaturally drying chalk-streams. 

First, we have long denied the cause of the problem. 

And then we have made the process of enacting solutions needlessly complicated. The latter sometimes to aid the former. And so it goes on.

In about 2006 I published a book on chalk-streams and drove through the Chilterns photographing them. With the exception of the Chess and Wye, I found mostly dry furrows in the landscape. 

In 2008 I helped WWF with their campaign against the over abstraction of chalk streams. We called it Rivers on the Edge. I wrote a speech which I gave bedside a dry chalk stream in Hertfordshire in which I said that our chalk streams were our burning rain forests, our melting ice caps. I hoped that idea would resonate and it did. 

The River Beane in 2008

Not so much, however, that in 2017 I was able to walk beside a River Beane with water in it. Whitehall was as dry in 2017 as it had been in 2007. And 1997 no doubt. As was the Hiz, the Mimram, the Misbourne, the upper Chess, the Ver.

The River Beane in 2017. At least it’s not overgrazed this time! But that pool of water … it isn’t flowing.

Will they still be dry in 2027? Dare we hope not? 

Because we have made some progress. The River Piddle dried often in the late 1980s, but now flows all the time, and as a result parts of it are close to chalk stream perfection. The River Og was bone dry when we campaigned for Rivers on the Edge. It flows again now. Other abstraction reductions have been made on the Chess, the Ver, the Darent. 

There are trout in London’s River Wandle when twenty years ago there were not. Some of our urban chalk streams are as clean as they have been since before the Industrial Revolution. 

River restoration is no longer seen by the authorities as a rogue activity pursued by eccentrics in smelly waders. It is encouraged and sometimes funded by the government to the degree that we can attempt projects now which were beyond our dreams twenty years ago.

So, there has been some progress and there is also now, I sense, a shift in mood. Nature and the environment are no longer niche concerns.

For my part I have been beavering away – quite literally, I suppose – on my local chalk stream in Norfolk and now I have been asked to chair a new national Chalk Streams Restoration Group, whose first task is to write a chalk stream restoration plan. 

Over the years I have to admit we’ve had a few of these. We’ve had in 2004 a report into the State of England’s Chalk-Streams. Then in 2009 we had WWF’s campaign Rivers on the Edge, followed in 2013 by the Angling Trust’s Chalk Stream Charter and in 2014 by a reinvestigation of the State of England’s Chalk Streams. And now most recently CRAG’s action plan. All good work. We kind of need another action plan like we need a hole in the head. What we really need is action.

But, if the momentum is here and there’s room for something that will help to catalyse that action, right now, I’m more than willing to have a go. 

Our end goal is healthy chalk streams we can all be proud of. It’s really very simple: there are three things that go to make a healthy chalk stream: 

water quantity, 

water quality, 

and good physical habitat. 

They are all interrelated, of course, and each one is shaped by the other. 

But the fundamental is water. Without water you have no river and in the case of the chalk-streams in London’s orbit, we frequently have no river. Or such diminished rivers that they are shadows of what they should be. This has gone on for too long, but one big reason why we have never quite cracked this abstraction nut is because the whole dark art of understanding abstraction and its impact on river flow has been hidden behind smoke and mirrors. Remember how I said that in the 1990s we were told abstraction wasn’t actually responsible for our unnaturally dry chalk streams? It seems incredible but only yesterday I bumped into a 1992 report on the upper Kennet that did just this, ascribing the cause to more or less everything but abstraction, wrapping the issue in a cloud of scientific radar chaff so that no-one without a PhD in geomorphology could disagree. 

I would like to see us democratise the knowledge. It’s not actually that complex. And knowledge, presented in such a way that it is easily comprehensible by the ordinary people who care passionately about their chalk streams, is what will harness the power to effect change. 

Right now you try getting hold of, let alone processing the information that will tell you the extent of the abstraction in a given valley, or the effective rainfall, or you try to understand the official assessment of whether a given river is over abstracted or not or even what actually defines unsustainable abstraction, and you’ll be set for a head-mangling exercise.

Instead, we should have a simple, national audit of the current abstraction regimes and rainfall data for all the English chalk-streams presented in an online map in an effortlessly comprehensible way, so we can see exactly what is coming in from the sky and exactly how much of that is not going out down the river? That would focus the debate, because it would put knowledge on both sides of the table.

And how about, in addition to the laudable but somewhat piecemeal abstraction reductions we have seen of late, giving ourselves a great big endorphin rush of an early hit by just getting on with the total no-brainer proposal of Chalk-Streams First? Chalk Streams First would amount to a total cessation of groundwater abstraction in all the chalk valleys of the Colne and Lea, a re-naturalisation of flows across the most beleaguered chalk stream region of all and for only a moderate loss to overall supply. It would offer us a model of how to do it elsewhere. What’s not to like? It’s such an easy win, the chance we have been waiting for to make progress on a significant scale.

As for water quality, remember that it took the Great Stink of the Thames to persuade the government of 1858 to invest in adequate sewer infrastructure. Perhaps it is a shame that we cannot, as Hercules might have, simply divert a river of Combined Sewer Overflows through Parliament. It hardly needs saying that the overuse of CSOs is a scandal. The Guardian recently reported the shocking headline figure that untreated sewage was released into English rivers 200,000 times in 2019. That Victorian sewage system catalysed by the 1858 stink is giving us problems some 170 years later. It is high time we updated it. To do that will be expensive, but Ofwat needs to understand that people care about not having poo in their rivers as well as their water bill.

Fakenham sewage outfall on the upper reaches of the River Wensum, one of only four chalk stream SACs

Further afield there is mounting evidence of the impact diffuse agricultural pollution is having on chalk-streams. We need to educate farmers, with independent, confidential advisory programmes backed up by warning and litigation if necessary. 

Over the road is a ditch and at the end of the ditch are the headwaters of the River Nar, one of only 14 SSSI chalk streams.

We also need to survey and fix the vast numbers of under-performing rural septic tanks, and sub-standard local sewage works.

Finally, and on to familiar territory for me, we need to lift our game when it comes to the physical restoration of chalk-streams. The degree to which they were dredged and canalised and the debilitating impact that has had on the bodily health of our chalk streams is poorly understood and massively under-estimated. 

A naturally meandering river, with an intact gravel bed and in-touch with its flood-plain is miles more healthy than a canalised, and entombed river, even if all the other factors are constant. It is perfectly possible, with funding and vision, to return our chalk-streams to a much more natural condition, even within the constraints of their man-made heritage. 

This is the River Nar taken out of its dredged and diverted course and put back down the centre of the floodplain. The old channel is now a spring-fed backwater full of sticklebacks and dragonflies. The new channel is full of current-loving chalk stream species like ranunculus, trout and riffle-dwelling mayflies and stoneflies.

To me this is the perfect chalk-stream: wild and unkempt, running free, but somehow also a palimpsest carrying the history of their mills and water-meadows and river-keepers.

Wouldn’t it be great if every water company were to adopt a chalk-stream as an exemplar of what is possible and work with the Rivers Trust and river associations to deliver a series of full catchment restorations, addressing that simple trinity of water quantity, quality and habitat as imaginatively and ambitiously as possible? 

Affinity Water and Thames Water will soon – I hope – meet this challenge on the River Chess. Will the other water companies join them and rehabilitate rivers like the Allen, the Cam, the Stiffkey, the Great Eau, the Foston Beck? Trojan Horse schemes on rivers like these would set the bar, showing beyond doubt that we can, with will and determination, find room for wild chalk-streams in our busy landscape, and through that enrich our lives immeasurably.

Thank you.”

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