Aquatic vegetation in the River Test (photo: Guy Edwardes/2020Vision)
There are only around 200 chalk streams in the world, and 85% of these are found in England. Most are located in south and east England, but some important chalk streams are also to be found in Lincolnshire and Yorkshire.
Chalk streams - a rare and special habitat
A combination of geology and climate means that our chalk streams have characteristic features that support special wildlife habitats and species. They are fed from groundwater aquifers, meaning that the water is of high clarity and good chemical quality. It is the quality of the waters as well as the gravels of the river bed that make chalk streams so precious for invertebrates, such as rare species like the fine-lined pea mussel and a range of mayfly species, as well as for damselflies such as the Southern damselfly.
The abundance of insects in a pristine chalk stream provides food for fish species, and the well vegetated banks and channels provide fish with shelter from predators. Chalk streams are important habitats for fish such as brown trout, Atlantic salmon, brook lamprey and bullhead. Other key species that live along our chalk streams are the otter, water vole and white-clawed crayfish.
Chalk streams also have characteristic plant communities, many of which can be seen in the channel- for example river water crowfoot and starworts, with plants such as watercress and lesser water-parsnip along the margins. These plants and the crystal clear waters make chalk streams the most beautiful and iconic of all our rivers.
The threats to chalk streams
Despite the fact that the beauty and value of our chalk streams is well recognised, however, they remain our ‘cinderella’ rivers. There is a long legacy of damaging activities such as impoundment of streams for milling purposes which has created barriers to fish movement, but damage continues to be caused by abstraction of water for drinking water purposes and land management in chalkstream catchments which causes pollution.
Taking action - the 'chalk stream charter'
The Wildlife Trusts have been working with the Environment Agency, Natural England, other partners and local communities to restore our chalk streams to good health, but there is now a growing campaign to ask Government to intervene to support this kind of work with stronger policies that protect this important resource for people and wildlife.
In 2012 a group of environmental organisations came together at a Chalk streams summit in Hampshire, and have since developed a ‘Chalk streams Charter’. The Charter was launched in May 2013on the banks of the River Beane in Hertfordshire and is supported by the Angling Trust, the Salmon and Trout Association, WWF-UK, The Wildlife Trusts and The Rivers Trust - along with local fisheries and river groups across the country.
The Charter calls for a range of measures to help tackle the problems, including designation of additional chalk streams as Special Areas of Conservation, greater consideration of water resource issues in relation to planning decisions on new developments, water metering, a national education campaign to reduce water demand and more restoration works along chalk streams to increase their connectivity and enable them to function naturally.
Taking action - Wildlife Trust chalk stream conservation projects
Living Rivers (Herts & Middlesex WT)
The problems are so acute in Hertfordshire that some chalk streams have virtually disappeared. The River Beane, which runs south past Stevenage to join the River Lea at Hertford, was once a famous trout fishing river and locals can remember in its deep pools in the 1930s. It is now little more than a dried up ditch in parts and is classified as ‘over-abstracted’ by the Environment Agency. As demand for water increases and the population continues to grow, river flows could be even further reduced.
Tom Day, Head of Living Landscapes at Herts and Middlesex Wildlife Trust, said: “ Our county boasts a number of chalk streams, but they have suffered badly from over-abstraction, pollution and modification. As hosts of a new catchment management plan for the Rivers Beane and Mimram, launched in January 2013, Herts and Middlesex Wildlife Trust is tackling these problems head on. Our Living Rivers project is working in partnership with statutory agencies, environmental charities, local landowners, community organisations and river groups to take practical action on the ground”.
Watch a film about the Living Rivers Project below, presented by Charlie Bell:
River Hull Project (Yorkshire Wildlife Trust)
The most northerly chalk river in the UK, the River Hull’s headwaters are designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) for their chalk stream features. Yorkshire Wildlife Trust is working with landowners and agencies to promote positive management of the catchment, recognising the great potential for beneficial ecological restoration in the area
Working with local people for the benefit of wildlife, the River Hull project officially started in late 2008 and builds on our ongoing work towards our Living Landscapes vision. The aim of the project is to restore, enhance and create new wetland habitats for the benefit of Biodiversity Action Plan (BAP) species and habitats throughout the river valley.
The main focus of this is around the River Hull itself, but work is also being carried out on adjacent land where new wetland habitat can provide huge benefits to the wide variety of plant and animal species.
Dorset Wild Rivers Project (Dorset Wildlife Trust)
Dorset Wildlife Trust is now running the Dorset Wild Rivers Project, which aims to restore the county’s chalk streams back to their former glory through habitat management and restoration. The Trust hopes to reduce run-off of agricultural pollutants into the streams and will also create wetland habitats in the floodplains for wading birds such as lapwing, redshank and snipe. It’s hoped this work will benefit fish and invertebrates living in the streams and a whole range of other wildlife that exist alongside it.
The project focuses on the Frome and Piddle Valleys and the chalk stream tributaries of the Stour, Allen, Tarrant and North Winterbornes. It’s funded by Wessex Water and the Dorset Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and works in partnership with land owners, fishing groups and The Wild Trout Trust. So far, the Trust has worked on over 7km of stream and there is evidence of immediate marked increase in salmon breeding.
The film on the below has been kindly made for Dorset Wildlife Trust by world-renowned wildlife cameraman and filmmaker, Hugh Miles, and tells the fascinating story of the River Allen, a typical Dorset chalk stream:
Southern Chalkstreams Project (Hampshire & Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust)
TWTs are leading practical action for chalkstreams elsewhere in the country, for example Hampshire & Isle of Wight WT’s Southern Chalkstreams Project works with land and river owners and managers to encourage habitat enhancement through sympathetic and beneficial management of rivers and the adjacent land and has focused on improving habitats for two key species- the southern damselfly and white clawed crayfish.
Wessex Chalk Streams Project (Wiltshire Wildlife Trust)
Wiltshire Wildlife Trust is working to restore sections of the River Avon, one of Europe’s finest chalk streams, which is protected by a string of international designations. It is an SSSI (Site of Special Scientific Interest) and because the river and its tributaries are recognised as some of the best in Europe they are protected as a Special Area of Conservation for Atlantic salmon, brook and sea lamprey, bullhead, Desmoulin’s whorl snail and typical chalk river plants, including water crowfoot.
But the legacy of historic dredging and draining practices still impacts on the river. The Trust’s Wessex Chalk Streams Project is trying to restore whole sections of it to a more natural state for the benefit of wildlife and people.
Other actions are underway in the campaign to restore and protect our chalkstreams. For example, earlier this year the Hampshire & Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust supported the Salmon & Trout Association’s complaint to the EU on the failure of the UK Government to comply with the Habitats Directive.This complaint focuses on the Government‘s failure to adequately address the issues affecting the River Avon SAC.
The Wildlife Trusts will continue to work with the Environment Agency, Natural England, local communities and other partners to deliver practical improvements for our chalkstreams and the special species they support, but this work must go hand in hand Government action to address the underlying problems of abstraction and pollution.