An insignificant river in Hertfordshire…

…saw the launch this year of a campaign, the ‘Charter for Chalk Streams’ with representatives from the Angling Trust, conservation and other river interests, to halt the decline of a unique and very precious national asset: the chalk stream.  The UK is home to 85% of world chalk streams. So, like the rainforests of the Amazon or Congo Basin, they represent a global responsibility in environmental terms. Yet the UK’s treatment of this natural heritage has been nothing short of appalling.

The chief culprit has been over-abstraction. Chalk streams, by their very nature, provide a source of relatively pure, ready-filtered water so water companies, with their chief allegiance to their customers and shareholders, regard them as the prime source of the commodity they deal in: cheap, and readily available. National policy, or lack of it, along with a crazy water management strategy, has allowed this to happen. With the boom-slump cycle of water availability, if the climate scientists are to be believed, set to continue or even become more pronounced, there is every reason to overhaul water management and arrive at a sensible strategy.

I am of course of an age such that I no longer trust any politician on issues I really care about. Politicians specialise in bringing about change which suits their short-term aims, and of course they play the game of politics with their own careers firmly in mind. So any environmental issue should never be placed solely in their hands. Rivers of any kind, even ones which occupy a unique ecological niche, play very little part in the election of politicians. And the only water your average voter worries about is the stuff which comes out of the tap. If it is fit to drink and in sufficient quantity, then fine. So the pressure on politicians to bring about positive change is very slight indeed. Without a shadow of a doubt, this pressure needs to be increased.

The way things have been going, such benchmarks for water purity and flow as the European Directive on Water Quality will only provide standards which can either – if you’ll pardon the pun – be watered down, or else ignored. The ‘insignificant river’ I referred to at the beginning of this piece, the Beane, was in the 1950’s a world-class river of its kind, where Dick Walker caught huge specimen roach. ‘Insignificant’ it may have been even then in terms of size, but priceless in terms of its ecology and environmental richness. It is now, 60 or so years down the line, little more than a dry ditch in parts, the victim of urban sprawl, human laziness, and, it has to be said yet again, our old friend apathy.

The same fate has befallen most of the chalk streams in Hertfordshire and in the London area generally. The have all but disappeared. The Wandle in south London, once the hardest-worked river in the world, was for a long time incapable of supporting life then in the 1990’s a small and dedicated band of anglers and other conservationists got to work cleaning up and stocking the river, attracting investment and the financial support of private enterprise. The support included that of Thames Water, a company which polluted the river on a number of occasions, and eventually subjected it to a catastrophic pollution in 2007 through spillage of cleansing agents from Beddington sewage works.

The river has never fully recovered, and is now a shadow of its former world status as a showpiece urban river. Thames Water now funds the Wandle Trust to the tune of a small fraction of its annual profit, and has since 2007 polluted the river significantly on several occasions.

As far as prosecution of polluters is concerned, Fish Legal, which acts as the legal arm of the Angling Trust in England, has rightly complained that UK payouts are extremely low in the UK in comparison with the for example the US. They are so low in fact that it pays to pollute and simply pay fines as they arise. Pollution fines need to be matched to both the size of the incidents caused, and also to the ability of the polluter to pay, such that in future it pays the polluter to introduce (possibly very expensive) pollution safeguards rather than just paying up and carrying on as before.

Another iconic chalk stream well-known to anglers is of course the River Kennet. In July this year a 15km stretch of the river from Marlborough downstream was polluted by an organophosphate, use of which has already been discontinued in the USA, which is highly toxic to insect (and human) life. Invertebrates, the prime source of natural food for fish life, were wiped out in the whole stretch. This must inevitably have an impact on fish – it has certainly had an effect on birds, because most of the avian population of the upper Kennet has deserted the area, with no insects to feed on!

The same chemical has previously been responsible for large fish kills on the Wey and Sussex Ouse. The Angling Trust has been involved in this case throughout, and we can confidently look forward to a positive result for the anglers fishing these waters. However, it is on the wider front that the fight will be harder: bringing about the banning the chemical concerned will be the real battle.

And like most chalk streams, the Kennet suffers from excessive abstraction, so much so that it featured prominently in the BBC television programme ‘Are We Drinking Our Rivers Dry?’ in 2012.

Only a handful of chalk streams are given the proper protection which their special status requiresOnly a handful of chalk streams are given the proper protection which their special status requires. For example, down near my neck of the woods, the Itchen (an SAC = Special Area of Conservation) does, whereas the nearby Test (a mere SSSI = Site of Special Scientific Interest) does not. I am aware of a proposed scheme to remove water from the Test and pipe it to the Itchen distribution point, the idea being to spare the Itchen further abstraction, and take the water from the Test instead. This is a classic example of robbing Peter to pay Paul if ever there was one. What is more, it is scandalous because at least some of the water in question would be used to supply the Isle of Wight, which is more than capable, with the right investment and planning, of being self-sufficient in water.

I have to declare an interest here: I am a member of a winter coarse fishing syndicate on the lower Test. Before you start accusing me of promoting my own interests, I will tell you now that the fishing, despite the image it enjoys, is not all plain sailing. Although the river can frequently produce the goods to a capable angler, there still is plenty to worry about. Apart from excessive and badly-planned abstraction, pollution from trout farms and big-business cress farming is evident. There are plenty of bits of gorgeous-looking river which appear to be worryingly short of fish, if not entirely devoid of them. There are also plenty of anglers around who will testify to how much the fish population has decreased, as well as plenty of evidence from those monitoring insect life who will confirm that riverine insect populations have also decreased markedly.

Having seen the lower Test during the winter of 2012-13, I am painfully aware of what can happen to such a fragile river in times of drought: the river dropped below its normal winter level by something like a metre, which represents a shortfall of a mammoth quantity of water. Fish became oxygen-starved, salmon were at particular risk, and insect life took a real battering. It will take the river several more years of normal flow to recover fully.

And as the Angling Trust pointed out recently, if chalk streams, as a priceless world ecological asset which happens to be virtually specific to the UK, are not allowed to survive, what chance do more common-or-garden, rain-fed rivers stand? Very little, I imagine and as I love all rivers, I am committed to this fight.

The implications of all this are obvious, and it needs angler power in the form of a strong Angling Trust involved in the fight, which includes lobbying politicians, to make them reality. The urgent needs are as follows:

(i) Overhaul, rationalisation and reform of abstraction policy,

(ii) Provision of greater, more efficient water storage capacity (no new reservoir has been built in the south east for 40 years!),

(iii) Reform of pollution policy such that it no longer pays the polluter to continue polluting and pay the fines as they go along,

(iv) Introduction at long last of universal water metering, a measure which has been discussed on and off for the last 30 years at least, and

(v) The re-designation of all chalk streams as SACs.

This and other causes are not helped by anglers as individuals moaning loudly to each other, worrying about it to themselves, or slagging off the culprits over a few drinks with their mates. Because part of the blame rests firmly on the shoulders of those who think and talk everything, but do nothing. (If you recognise yourself here, then of course I make no apology…) And don’t trust politicians who glibly pledge their commitment to the environmental cause. Put your own interests as an angler first.

So join the Angling Trust at – and do it immediately. Add your voice to the growing numbers of organised anglers out there, give your support, and make a real difference to the future of the waters we fish, and of our sport.