River revival is in good flow

Fish stocks and fish diversity are increasing in some English rivers following the work of community groups

Early results from ten pilot projects to improve Britain’s rivers for fish and wildlife are proving highly successful in increasing species counts and fish populations, according to the government’s Environment Agency.

The Environment Agency has allocated money from a £24.5m Catchment Restoration Fund to small community groups to help them transform rivers to standards required by the European Water Framework Directive 2000. EU member countries need to bring rivers, lakes, groundwater, estuaries and coasts up to ‘good ecological status’ by 2027.

The river section of the directive carries a number of measures, including improving fish passage and water quality, which it states have suffered over the last fifty years because of man-made interventions.

By nature, most freshwater fish like to move between different habitats seasonally to spawn, over winter, and shelter from inhospitable conditions such as flood and drought. But fish passage has been hampered by weirs, flood defences, flow-gauging structures, diversions and navigations, as well as the raising and lowering of water levels, according to Sally Chadwick, biodiversity specialist from the Environment Agency.

In addition, water quality has been affected by sewage treatment, industry, road run-off and agricultural fertilisers. And new industry and development has led to a loss of river habitats such as wetlands and broadleaf woodland.

Around the country there are one hundred catchment areas. “Work is being undertaken in all of these to understand the situation in terms of water quality, invertebrates, fish and plant populations as well as the flows and structure of the water body,” says Chadwick.

“Restoring the country’s rivers is a mammoth task, but the agency is being helped by enthusiastic and committed local groups”

Restoring the country’s rivers is a mammoth task, but the agency is being helped by enthusiastic and committed local groups who have initiated projects using government funding, as of April 2012. The work involves everything from reducing water extraction, removing weirs, getting water companies to improve treatment standards at sewage works and working with farmers or urban councils to reduce pollutants entering water.

One of the pilot schemes, run by the Ouse & Adur Rivers Trust (OART) in Sussex, demonstrates the good progress being made. The Trust had been conserving the rivers on a voluntary basis for years, using extensive local knowledge from retired members like Jim Smith, who has had a lifelong association with the river Ouse.

Now, following surveys, funding of £500,000 and assistance in dealing with the planning authorities, the Trust is well on the way to removing four weirs on a stretch of the river in East Sussex.

“Local groups look after small local rivers, but it’s the myriad of tiny rivers that are the target of this huge project,” says Peter King, the Trust’s only paid employee.

Though rivers are nationally owned, the land through which they run is often private, and interventions have been made for all sorts of reasons by various different stakeholders. All these issues have to be addressed as part of the project.

“The problems are man-made, but you can’t simply reverse them without thinking about the consequences for both the river, the landowners and the users,” explains King. “A lot of my time is spent negotiating with landowners and local user groups to ensure that when the project is finished, the river is improved but also that everyone is happy.”

At a nearby site in Fletching, the removal of a weir had dramatic effects on the fish populations. In 2009 only five species of fish were found in the river. A 2012 survey showed there were twelve species thriving with significantly higher numbers. Populations have also increased beyond expectation. In 2009, only one Dace fish was caught, whereas in 2012 that number had increased to more than one hundred.

There is plenty of goodwill towards the local trusts whose members give up their spare time to look after the countryside, another reason why the bottom-up approach is working. And with a large number of people having a say – particularly those who know the areas well – the positive outcomes increase, says Peter King.

“We are pleased to have been able to create new wetlands at the same time as fulfilling the primary goals of the Directive,” he says.