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A Blueprint for Freshwater Biodiversity Recovery

Our freshwater biodiversity is in dire trouble. Stewart Clarke of National Trust, Jeremy Biggs of Freshwater Habitats Trust and Carl Sayer of UCL discuss why, and share the action required to ensure our freshwaters are flourishing, not failing.

Join us on Tuesday 14th September at 2pm for the launch of our Blueprint for Water Vision - our 'how to’ strategy for bringing our freshwaters back to health, before it is too late.

September 2021

In England, our freshwater environment is in dire trouble. Freshwater biodiversity is disappearing, from sensitive water plants on the verge of extinction in this country, to the magnificent salmon and our precious native crayfish. Most worryingly we have the first evidence of whole-landscape-scale losses of freshwater wildlife from protected areas; places that most would regard as ‘sustainably’ managed. [1] Huge areas of wetland have been lost, and that which remains, (despite considerable formal conservation protection), is mostly degraded and polluted.

We are in a perilous situation; a knife edge of numerous extinctions of freshwater species. As the Climate Change Committee calls for urgent action on freshwater habitats, we need bold change that will really make a difference for life in our rivers, streams, lakes, ponds and wetlands.

Yet we are failing to look problems squarely in the eye, often ignoring the evidence of what does, and doesn’t work. The science for example tells us that we can’t significantly mitigate freshwater pollution by use of narrow buffers and interception ponds, and we know that minor habitat alterations in polluted rivers won’t allow species to thrive.

It’s clear a ‘more of the same’ approach is not going to be sufficient. As our knowledge of how to protect freshwater biodiversity grows, there is increasing recognition that reversing the decline is possible, but only with big changes.

What does this look like? We need to farm back from rivers, lakes and ponds so that these habitats are protected. Where possible river floodplains must be given back to, and re-connected with, rivers. Within these wider wetland corridors, we need to undertake science-informed restoration, focusing on the whole spectrum of freshwater habitats, with a strong emphasis on use of natural processes and re-wilding. This means natural flows, physical processes, and clean water too. Freshwater wildlife can’t flourish where water is polluted.

In short, the future needs to be one of much bigger, and better-connected aquatic landscapes with networks of freshwater habitats that are wilder, wetter and cleaner.

  • Wilder: We need to re-naturalise floodplains; the great potential nature corridors of England and places that can deliver for people, carbon and wildlife. A key focus should be on small waters, running and still - we must look out from river valleys to the full complement of remnant wetlands, lakes and ponds, as scattered through the wider countryside. Ghost ponds buried beneath the fields can be resurrected, and existing derelict ponds restored. New ponds and other wetlands can be created. These small waters deliver so much for wildlife and are where we can have a rapid impact. Fens and wet meadows can also be restored with patience. And we must take opportunities to connect existing high quality wetland patches, creating migration corridors and stepping-stones for species on the move. We have good scientific evidence on what works.
  • Wetter: We need to reduce water use, and limit abstraction in water-stressed catchments. England’s internationally renowned chalk streams and their floodplains are in need of urgent attention. Much tougher regulation of abstraction in water-stressed catchments is needed to restore natural flow regimes – without water, wetlands can’t be wetlands and nowhere is this more evident than for dry chalk rivers. The pressures of climate change make this more and more urgent.
  • Cleaner: We need to bring clean water back into our waterways - to treat wastewater to much higher standards, or simply divert it away from the most sensitive areas, and reduce pollution from agriculture, prosecuting where there are breaches in regulation. And we need to do this intelligently: stopping untreated sewage gushing into rivers will be the most empty of victories if we simply allow water, just as dirty, to go on flowing into those same rivers, day in day out, from the land.
    Ultimately, we also need to face up to the uncomfortable truth that very low intensity land use and naturally-wild land underpin our healthiest freshwaters; we need to set farmland back so that the edges of nature conservation areas are not sharp boundaries with cultivated fields. There is a huge opportunity to link rewilding, natural reafforestation and more natural land management to protecting freshwater habitats on a much bigger scale.

This is an exciting yet simple way forward, and one which we must take if we want our wetlands to be absorbing carbon, harbouring wildlife and giving pleasure to so many people. Our measures of success are equally straightforward: we will know we are succeeding when we see landscapes that are rich in freshwater life, with sensitive species expanding.

We invite you all to join us in creating this future where life in freshwater is flourishing, not failing.

[1] Williams et al. 2020. 'Nature based measures increase freshwater biodiversity in agricultural catchments'.

Dr Stewart Clarke is
National Specialist - Freshwater Catchments and Estuaries at the National Trust. Dr Jeremy Biggs is co-founder and Director of the Freshwater Habitats Trust. Professor Carl Sayer is a Professor in Geography at UCL.

Follow: @nationaltrust, @fluitans, @PondRiverStream and @uclponds

The opinions expressed in this blog are the author's and not necessarily those of the wider Link membership.