The case for wider, wilder river corridors

The case for wider, wilder river corridors

Water Policy Manager, Ali Morse, and Land Use Policy Manager, Barnaby Coupe, look at what wider, wilder river corridors could look like - and what's needed to make it a reality.

Last week, through Blueprint for Water coalition, we released a new publication setting out the changes needed to help turn around the ailing state of our waters and wetlands.

With our partners in the Troubled Waters project, we also published a report that shines a spotlight on the protected sites in poor condition due to water pollution.

Wildlife Trusts locally continue to campaign against the poor practices and weak regulation allowing Rivers such as the Wye to become little more than free waste disposal. Here, polluted by an overloading of nutrients, putrid algal blooms devastate wildlife & our enjoyment of waterways alike.

Farming in England has recently overtaken the water industry as the most significant source of pollution to surface waters*

With more than 70% of our landscape used for agriculture it is clear that significant changes are crucial, not just to reduce the impacts of water pollution, but also to see species declines halted and reversed.

Insufficient river margins

Our river corridors are one of the places where these aspirations can align.

In the past, a focus on food production has seen farmers encouraged to leave very little space for nature, sometimes even ploughing right up to riverbanks. This leaves no scope to trap runoff from the land, allowing sediment and chemicals direct entry to pollute our rivers and streams, and leaves little room for the species like water vole, little grebe and white-legged damselfly that thrive amongst the plants of lush river margins.

Even where buffer strips are present, these are often insufficient to prevent this pollution. Grass strips of no more than a few meters wide do little to trap pollutants or encourage biodiversity, especially where under-field drainage simply bypasses them.

For buffer strips to effectively protect our vulnerable waters, studies have shown they must be much wider and have much more structural complexity to slow the flow of runoff from farmland.

A look at what's possible

Wider, wilder river corridors are key to protecting our waterways and providing vital habitat for freshwater wildlife. So what could this look like?

Clean-water tributaries

A river’s source is generally where it is least polluted, with inputs to the system from farmland and other pollution sources accumulating on the water’s journey downstream. This means that ‘extending’ clean-water habitat downstream from these relatively unimpacted headwaters is a win-win; the new habitat benefits from the clean water it receives from upstream, and itself helps to keep that water clean for downstream recipients.

(River) corridors for nature

Ineffective grass buffer strips do little to address pollution entering waters and provide poor habitat for many of our wetland species - but creating wilder corridors aimed at providing both wildlife habitat and pollution protection could be many times more valuable.

Many wetland and aquatic species can thrive in relatively narrow habitats that do not stretch far from the water’s edge. A diverse margin of semi-natural vegetation; of grasses, flowering plants, scrub and trees; will not require vast land-take, but will be alive with birds, small mammals, and pollinating insects, whilst also providing safe passage for species that need to move between larger patches of habitat. 

Floodplains that flood

The evidence is now unequivocal; climate change will have an increasingly significant impact on weather events in the coming years. This means more frequent, and more intense, flooding events. We are already seeing land in vulnerable areas becoming less suitable to farm, and a new vision for floodplains is needed to ensure that these ecosystems are resilient to a changing climate, and deliver benefits to society.

A key element of achieving net zero will be taking areas of marginal farmland out of intensive food production, using it instead to restore damaged ecosystems and recreate habitats, improving resilience to a changing climate.

Flat valley bottoms could be reconnected to their river channels, creating mosaics of wet meadows and marshes, wet woodlands and reedbeds. These would still be productive habitats, with land managers paid to provide valuable services such as flood protection, carbon sequestration, and pollution prevention, and of course habitat where the species of freshwaters and wetlands can thrive.

How can we make this a reality? 

To facilitate this however will need a strong steer from Government and others. We need to see:

  • Strong baseline regulation, monitoring, and enforcement to protect and improve water quality.
  • Payments for improving the water environment in all the components of the forthcoming Environmental Land Management Scheme for England, and the Sustainable Farming Scheme for Wales.
  • All stakeholders in the water environment taking action; for example, water industry plans and flood risk schemes delivering for nature.
  • Mechanisms to help us reverse the loss of freshwater species; from legal protection, to financial support.

With clear obligations, enforcement and efficiency, it will be possible to restore our freshwater world - but we must take action now if we are to secure the benefits that a healthy water environment should deliver.

*Latest reports from England found that 40% of water bodies are suffering from agricultural pollution, and 35% from wastewater from the water industry.