Chalk streams

Split level view of the River Itchen (photo:Linda Pitkin/2020Vision)Split level view of the River Itchen (photo:Linda Pitkin/2020Vision)

Crystal clear waters, with an abundance of the white-flowering river water crowfoot and fringed with lush bankside vegetation, chalk streams are globally rare habitats, the most iconic of which are to be found in England. But these fragile and beautiful places are under threat, with many chalk streams now far from pristine. An increasing population and growing demand for water is putting more and more pressure on these special places. Working in partnership with others, The Wildlife Trusts are campaigning for the critical threats to chalk streams to be tackled once and for all, so that they will once again support thriving populations of wildlife.

Where are they found?

In England chalk streams are located in south and east England, for example in Dorset, Hampshire, Wiltshire, Kent, Norfolk, south Cambridgeshire and Hertfordshire. There are also some important chalk streams on the wolds in Lincolnshire and Yorkshire. 

Why are they important?

There are only around 200 chalk streams in the world, and 85% of these are found in England, so we have a special responsibility to look after them. 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, kingfisher, water shrew 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.

Are they threatened?

Despite the fact that the beauty and value of our chalk streams is well recognised, they remain our ‘cinderella’ rivers. It is estimated that only around 25% of our chalk streams are at good status. They still suffer from a long legacy of damaging activities such as impoundment of streams for milling purposes which has created barriers to fish movement and damage continues to be caused by abstraction of drinking water. Diffuse pollution originating on agricultural land and management of springs and nearby still waters for fish farming or growing of watercress can also pose a risk to the purity of our chalk streams.   The problems of abstraction are so acute in some areas 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. 

How are The Wildlife Trusts helping?

Over a period of many years 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 2013 on 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.

In the meantime, the work of The Wildlife Trusts in delivering practical action for chalk streams continues. The Herts and Middlesex Wildlife Trust hosts a new catchment management plan for the Rivers Beane and Mimram, launched in January 2013, and their Living Rivers project is working in partnership with statutory agencies, environmental charities, local landowners, community organisations and river groups to deliver enhancements to chalk stream habitats

Hampshire and Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust’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. In 2013 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.

Wessex 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.

The Wildlife Trusts will continue to work with the Environment Agency, Natural England, local communities and other partners to deliver practical improvements for our chalk streams and the special species they support. The practical work must go hand in hand with Government action to address the underlying problems of abstraction and pollution. The Government has a responsibility under the European Water Framework Directive and the Habitats Directive to play its part and to reverse the decline of chalk stream habitats and species.

What can I do to help?

If you live in an area that supports chalk streams please contact your local Wildlife Trust to see how you can help take practical action and lobby policy makers for change.

Reduce your own water use in the house and the garden to reduce the strain on our streams and rivers Tips for saving water include turning off the tap when brushing teeth, or washing fruit and veg in a bowl rather than under a running tap.

Check out your local water company website as many companies now offer water saving tips and also devices – for example see Anglian Water’s advice on using water wisely.

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