Above: the River Piddle in Dorset. One of lowland England’s freshwater miracles.
I’ve been hearing a lot of concern lately that the campaign to bring the ecological plight of chalk streams to the attention of the government, the water resources industry and the general public, is in danger of detracting from equally pressing ecological restoration of other habitats. Chalk streams are getting all the attention, is a complaint I am hearing.
Personally, while I may have a special affection for chalk streams, I am passionate about all watery habitats. They all matter.
But chalk streams are globally rare. Most are in England and all of these flow through the most highly developed landscape. Any pressure exerted by mankind on the natural world of rivers is felt most acutely on chalk streams. They are abstracted and polluted. They are corralled by roads, towns and farmland. Their physical form has been greatly altered over the centuries. And yet chalk streams are such gentle streams, they are totally imprisoned by what we have done and continue to do them.
That is the chalk stream’s curse and our responsibility. A responsibility of global importance. We can restore chalk streams and because of this same gentle nature, they will respond. Through chalk streams we can show what can be done and how it is eminently possible to live busy lives alongside a living and healthy natural world.
I passionately believe that if we can raise the plight of our chalk streams in the public consciousness and if we can use chalk streams to show the government and its regulators that when once we took nature for grated, now we see that it is both fragile and profoundly important, then that success will help all habitats.
In a cupboard in the High Wycombe public library is a mid 19th century sanitary inspector’s report into the slums which straddled the River Wye – a chalk stream – to the west of the town. Read that report and you will understand the miracle and privilege of clean water coming from a tap in your house and a loo that doesn’t give you cholera. To have these things is amazing, so amazing and so fundamentally valuable to people, that for a while we lost sight of, or didn’t care about, where that water came from and what impact the use of it had on the natural world.
That has changed. Why? Because the natural world which has picked up the bill for that miracle is also profoundly important to us, to our mental health and physical well being. If nothing else, the last few years will surely have shown that? And also because it is profoundly important of itself. How bloody amazing is it that we now have wild trout spawning and thriving in a south London river?
The fact is, this is not a binary choice: healthy people versus healthy rivers. To think as much – as aspects of our financial regulation of water have assumed in the past – is delusional. The two go hand in hand, or should do in the better world we will build as we start to value and pay for nature’s restoration and protection.
That’s why chalk streams. If we can restore chalk streams we can restore anything. Their restoration won’t detract one iota from the restoration of other habitats, but make it all the more possible.