Will the rivers ever get better?

If you’ve been fishing for a good many years you will know that our rivers have deteriorated. Aside from post-industrial successes like the Tyne or the Thames in London, rivers are now very polluted by agricultural run-off, sewage discharge and assorted muck, all made worse by abstraction. Fly anglers notice this more keenly than coarse; aquatic fly life has collapsed countrywide and clear trout streams are thick with filamentous algae during the summer, especially when rainfall is low.

The question is will the decline in water quality be reversed? The environment is high on the political agenda — that is the government pays lip service but does very little. In fact the pollution that should easily be preventable, raw sewage discharge, is worse than ever, as campaigner Feargal Sharkey energetically points out. One gets the sense there is a lot of talk but not much action.

Organisations like the Wild Trout Trust should be significant players here. Trout require clean cool water and suffer from pollution more than most species. As ever with organisations funded by anglers, money is limited. The majority of fishermen seem to care little for preserving the aquatic environment, especially if it means stumping up a few quid.

Referring again to this year’s number of Salmo Trutta, the WTT journal, a few articles address the problem of cleaning up the rivers. Two written by scientists, Deiter Helm and Jonathan Grey, offer an optimistic view. Helm gives figures that show agriculture’s damage to the environment, including carbon production, for a modest economic return. (Not that a good economic return should be an excuse to pollute.) He goes on to say that if we do a variety of obvious things, the land and rivers will be cleaner. The rub is how we go about this. As Helm observes, the powerful moneyed interests are preventing change. He has nothing to offer on how they might be counteracted.

Grey’s article is also upbeat. He refers to figures, which he admits are not particularly robust, plus anecdotes that suggest trout populations are on the rise. I think this is quite possible. Some fisheries are managed very well and all the faggoting, woody debris and gravel-dumping must surely have some benefits. The problem with those writing in their science hat is they are in love with their jargon, and though Grey’s discourse on 3D buffer strips has many interesting points, it is bogged down in its own woody debris. Another disconcerting realisation is this topic has been covered many times before.

Therefore it is refreshing to read Charles Rangeley-Wilson’s article on the Nar restoration project. Rivers have suffered from centuries of being mucked about with, from dredging and straightening to impounding or even diverting to a new course. In such cases there is a limit to what standard habitat improvement measures can achieve. Rangeley-Wilson’s solution is as simple as it is bold. But then drastic changes in the past require drastic action to undo the damage. In theory. For the last ten years a team has embarked on a catchment restoration project. Chalkstreams in particular have historically been diverted and impounded to drive mills or irrigate fields. The idea is to restore the river to its original course, or what may have been its course, and allow the water to find its natural path once more. It’s a big and expensive undertaking which relies on cooperative landowners and support from funding bodies.

The work continues. I very much hope it succeeds. It’s only on a small part of a small river and it would be too optimistic to think this is the beginning of a better natural environment. But it does show the way better than any other I’ve heard about.

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