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Have a heart for hard-pressed chalk streams 

Sir David Attenborough | Credit: Eamonn McCabe

Some of the best things in nature are understated – take the chalk streams of England, for example. These fragile river systems meander quietly through undulating countryside before disappearing into the sea.

Beloved by fishermen down the ages, chalk streams are fascinating river systems where everything grows in abundance. Fed by babbling springs and typically crystal-clear, they have their own ecosystem, so unique and biologically productive that experts refer to them as waterborne ‘rainforests’.

England is home to 85 per cent of the world’s chalk streams, which provide vital homes for wildlife like the mayfly, brown trout and the water vole.

Endangered

Described by David Attenborough as “one of the rarest habitats on Earth” in his recent BBC series, Wild Isles, chalk streams are under serious threat.

Charles Rangeley-Wilson, appointed by the UK Environment Agency to help deliver on a 2021 government strategy to save chalk streams, said we are “miles from where we need to be

It’s not just wildlife that rely on them – chalk streams are a primary source of freshwater for household consumption. More than two-thirds of the water supply for the southeast of England comes from the chalk aquifer, with an average family of four using the water equivalent of 60 metres of river each year. 

However, these beautiful streams are showing signs of strain from increasing demand for water abstraction.

Pollution

At the same time, nitrate and phosphate running off from sewage works and farm fields causes river pollution. This can cause algal blooms to proliferate, smothering flowering plants, coating the riverbed an unsightly green, and sucking out oxygen, causing the death of aquatic life.  

Intensively farmed arable land is a major source of pollution. England’s chalk streams have more arable land in their catchment areas – nearly half of the surrounding area – than any other type of river. Maize (corn) crops are particularly blamed for polluting rivers. Since the 1970s, there has been a heavy shift towards growing maize in Britain, with much of it grown for intensive animal feed and for the biofuel business. 

As well as pollution, soil erosion from intensively farmed fields can silt up delicate riverbeds. This robs fish and other species of vital breeding habitat. The end result: impoverished streams with little life.

Feargal Sharkey, best known as lead vocalist in The Undertones pictured close to the River Lea in Ware, Hertfordshire | Credit: Adam Gerrard

A good heart

It’s good to see then the growing public outcry to protect our chalk streams, a leading proponent of which being Feargal Sharkey, the singer of a band I’ve long admired, the Undertones, who is now a passionate campaigner for rivers. On Twitter alone, his call to action now has a following of nearly 200,000. 

Like the Scottish uplands, England’s chalk streams have become an iconic destination for many countryside lovers. If generations to come are to enjoy the chatter of gin-clear water, safe in the knowledge that it harbours thriving wildlife, then concerted action is needed now before it’s too late. So, hurrah for the likes of Sharkey. Loud may their voices be.

Note: This is a version of an article that appeared in The Scotsman on Friday 28th July 2023

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