Why is our freshwater so polluted?

Conservationists have teamed up with industry to discover why our freshwater habitats are so polluted and to discover how to reverse this decline in one of the largest catchment-scale research projects to be undertaken to help clean up Britain’s precious rivers, streams and ponds.

This ground-breaking research project which is backed by the Environment Agency and has attracted nearly one million pounds of funding is being led by Pond Conservation, the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust, University of York, Syngenta and a consortium of stakeholders including Anglian Water.

The extent of freshwater pollution is shocking.  Niney-five per cent of lowland freshwater rivers, streams and ponds are degraded by diffuse pollution from farmland and run-off from roads, towns and sewage works.  Worryingly, three quarters of rivers in England and Wales fail to meet even minimum legal standards set for a healthy river by the Water Framework Directive.

However, this unique new project, “Water Friendly Farming”, being launched on the 18 June at 12.30 pm in Westminster by the Earl of Selborne, aims to provide the first catchment-scale evidence on the wide-scale measures needed to provide clean, clear water for the benefit of fish, aquatic invertebrates, plants,  biodiversity and for the benefit of  us all.

Dr Jeremy Biggs, Director of Pond Conservation said, “Not a single study has yet shown catchment scale improvements to freshwater biodiversity resulting from the many million pounds spent annually on mitigation measures.  We urgently need to get evidence of what works and what doesn’t so agri-environment money is spent wisely and not literally poured down the drain. The new Water Friendly Farming project aims to do just that.”

River carrying heavy sediment load in flood waterRiver carrying heavy sediment load in flood water. Photo courtesy of the Salmon & Trout Association.

This impressive catchment-scale research project covering 25 farms over 30 km² in Leicestershire is the largest experimental area so far attempted in the lowlands and aims to find out to what extent agri-environment measures can make a difference at catchment scale to protect freshwater biodiversity and eco-system services.

Dr Chris Stoate, from the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust who is co-ordinating this unique research effort on farmland in Leicestershire, said,
“This funding will enable us to gather the best possible data to demonstrate the extent to which a headwater farming community can contribute to meeting EU water quality targets as well as benefiting wildlife and without impinging on their farm businesses.  The project builds on previous work carried out by the GWCT  on our Allerton Project farm in Leicestershire in which we combined our scientific research with the knowledge and enthusiasm of local people.”

Management practices in the study will include buffer strips on river banks, settlement ponds, stream-side fencing and alternative livestock drinkers, woody debris dams, soil and nutrient management advice and many others.  This will be the first time that the whole suite of measures, most of them funded under Government agri-environment schemes, have been evaluated at the catchment scale.  The participation of, and feedback from catchment farmers will be an integral part of the study.

Mike Bushell from Syngenta, which is providing a proportion of the funding for this project said, “Sustainable intensification in arable crops means achieving high productivity, better environmental outcomes and using inputs more efficiently.  The Water Friendly Farming Project using modern modelling technology for landscape scale studies could not be more timely.”

Baseline monitoring from the Water Friendly Farming project has already provided important information about freshwaters at the landscape scale.  The next phase of the project is to start large-scale practical work that will help to refine current freshwater management approaches.

Dr Biggs, explains, “Farmers and land managers will play a vital role in helping to ensure healthy rivers and wetlands but in order to do this they need to know what works and what doesn’t.  Our project will help to remove the guesswork and influence agri-environment policy so that farmers will receive the correct advice and be rewarded for implementing measures that they know will have a successful outcome for the benefit of our rivers and streams in the future.”