Water and wetlands

Wynchnor Washland - part of Staffordshire WT's Farming Floodplains For the Future project (credit Nick Mott)

Wetlands are a core part of a Living Landscape – the lives of animals, plants and people depend on their health. Wetlands provide food, water, transport networks, help reduce the impacts of extreme weather events and are places of beauty and inspiration. The Wildlife Trusts have been helping to lead wetland conservation in the UK for many years.

What are wetlands?

The term wetlands is used to define a variety of habitats that include water bodies such as rivers and streams, canals, lakes and ponds, but also habitats that are characterised by permanent or temporarily wet soils. These wet soils, including peatlands, support bogs, fens, swamps, reedbeds, marshes, floodplain meadows and wet woodland. Wetlands also include estuaries and coastal waters. In some wetland habitats water is static, in others it is flowing; some support freshwater, others support brackish or salty waters. These different characteristics support very different and often specially adapted plant and animal species. One of the key factors that shapes a wetland habitat or a wetland ecosystem is the extent to which these diverse wetlands are connected to each other.

Wetlands - habitats under pressure

Unfortunately wetlands are some of our most damaged habitats. Nearly half of all floodplains in England and Wales are now separated from their rivers, wetland habitats are highly fragmented, they continue to be lost through drainage and over abstraction, they are impacted by diffuse and point source pollution in both rural and urban areas. Wetlands are being colonised by non-native invasive species and are under pressure from development. We are living with a legacy of past damage to our wetlands and new challenges threaten what remains. Climate change has already resulted in water temperature increases of 1.5–3°C in many rivers over the past two decades. In some river catchments juvenile populations of salmonids such as Atlantic salmon have declined by about 50–60%.

Indicators of environmental change

Because wetlands are so dynamic and responsive and because the species they support are sensitive to change, their condition is a good indication of the overall state of our natural environment.

Restoring our wetlands for people and wildlife

There is an urgent need to restore our wetlands and to help some of our most enigmatic species return and thrive across our wetland landscapes. Biodiversity conservation is a major driver for change across river catchments. It benefits communities and businesses as well as the special species and places that our rivers and streams support. Working with nature can help reduce flood risk and help us cope with drought conditions. But action on the ground to protect and enhance wetlands must be supplemented by more sustainable use of water for both domestic and business purposes and supported by a clear understanding of the wider value to society of wetland habitats.