Rivers have always been the centre of society. They allow for easier transport and trade, and give us water for farming and homes. And have you ever spent a lazy summer afternoon by a lake with a picnic, or walked along a riverside, spotting animals? Heaven. According to the National River Flow Archive, the UK has 1500 river systems, made up of 200,000 km of water.
British rivers are amazing. They cut through our countryside to create the beautiful landscape we’re surrounded by, and they are chock-full with wildlife. They’re also pretty unique, because most of the world’s chalk streams can be found in Britain, which are the perfect sources of clean water. British rivers are generally short and shallow, compared to other rivers in the world, which means that they are more affected by changes inflicted on them, both by climate change and humans.
So - are we keeping those changes under control? No, of course not. The Environmental Agency did a survey of rivers in 2016, and found that only 16% of rivers in Britain could be described as being in “good health”. This scared everyone, because that’s a very small number - and the government promised it would protect Britain’s rivers. In 2020, though, the Environmental Agency did a similar survey (although more intensive), and discovered that the number of healthy rivers has actually reduced. To ZERO. Not one single river in Britain can be considered as being in good health.
Let’s break this down a little bit further. There are two ways that the Environmental Agency examines the health of a river - the chemical condition and the ecological condition. In order to be considered healthy, a river needs to be rated good in both of these categories. In the latest surveys, 14% of the rivers in Britain were rated good ecologically - which might not be that good, but it’s better than how many rivers were rated good chemically, which was zero.
There are plenty of things that can impact a river’s health, from industry and urbanisation to agriculture and quarrying. The effects that this can have on the environment of the country are catastrophic. Obviously, here at KiteNest, we’re huge fans of wildlife - so we’re not going to talk to you about rivers, without talking about some of the critters that call them home, and we’re going to focus on a few that are really struggling thanks to the state of our waterways.
These are just some of the creatures that are considered Priority Species - they’re protected by law and listed in the Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act. We got these examples from the Freshwater Habitats Trust, who are working tirelessly to protect our rivers, lakes and ponds.
First up - otters. Who doesn’t love otters? Their cute little faces, the way they hold hands, the noises they make when they play… They’re adorable. They used to be widespread in the UK, but thanks to land development and pollution, their numbers have declined drastically. Aside from rivers giving otters places to live and hunt, they also use ponds to raise their young. There are programs for reintroducing otters to the UK, so hopefully we’re going to see more of them in years to come (and when you finish reading this blog - go look at pictures and videos of otter pups!).
Next are water voles! These sweet little rodents have also declined sharply. They specifically struggle with land development, which has separated up their habitat, making them isolated and more vulnerable to predators. Increasing habitats, such as new ponds, is the best way to help water voles, especially where they link up with existing habitats and make them more complex so they can hide from their predators, because hide and seek is always better with more hiding places.
If you’re hanging out at the water’s edge at twilight, you might witness bats zipping around in the sky. All bat species need open water, because they drink while flying - they fly close to the water and scoop it up in their mouths. It’s incredible. They also like to catch and feast upon insects that live around the water. Bats are a little more fussy about their ponds than water voles, but you can learn about how to make your pond more appealing to bats by visiting Freshwater Habitats Trust’s Bat Dossier.
Let’s move away from mammals with the sad news that the common toad is no longer, as its name suggests, all that common. It’s now considered ‘at risk’, and one of its biggest dangers are due to its strong migratory sense. Every spring, they travel back to the pond they were born in to breed again, leading to lots of toads being killed on roads. Giving them a place to hibernate in the winter is an easy way to help them out, and they’ll help you out in return - they like to eat the kind of garden dwellers that like to eat your lettuces! There are also lots of kind-hearted superheroes in the world who patrol the migratory paths during the spring to help toads cross the road.
These aren’t the only animals that are affected by the poor health of rivers in the UK. There are also a number of other amphibians and invertebrates that are suffering, such as the great crested newt, the grass snake, and various species of dragonflies and other insects.
But aside from what we’ve said about these specific animals and how to help them - what can we do to protect British waterways? Campaigners say that it’s going to take more than just the government making promises to help rivers, it needs to be a joint effort with businesses, farmers and the general public.
The Environmental Agency have been working with agriculture and forestry groups to improve the practices around waterways, and have said they’re working closely with water treatment plants to try and cut down on the amount of wastewater and sewage dumped into the rivers around the UK, which exacerbates that chemical bad health. Other organisations are working towards restoring and rewilding waterways, such as Thames21 are working to help river habitats in London by installing reedbeds and removing barriers, creating better habitats for birds and fish.
So that’s what the government and organisations are doing - but if you’re sitting there, wondering what you can do to help the rivers and ponds near you, we’ve got some ideas.
One: We’ve spoken about saving water at KiteNest recently - studies show that people underestimate the amount of water that they use. Check out our blog on cutting water consumption for some ideas on how you can use less water without drastically changing your daily routine.
Two: Have you got the space in your garden for a pond? Have a look at Freshwater Habitats Trust’s guide on creating a garden pond that’s perfect for wildlife.
Three: Speaking of ponds - some organisations are encouraging people to get involved with pond dipping, checking the water health of ponds and seeing what creatures are present. The best time to do this is between May and August, because that’s when there’s the most activity going on in and around the water. We don't recommend you go jumping into random bodies of water though - stay safe and do your research!
Four: If you do live near a river, lake or the sea, look into organisations in the area that are working together to preserve the environment. This might include work with litter picking, protecting wildlife and creating awareness of the issues. If there isn’t an organisation in your area? Start one!
Five: Speak out for our waterways and our wildlife. If we turn a blind eye to the issues facing the environment, it’s never going to get better. Speak to local organisations about how they’re helping the rivers, volunteer with charities, raise awareness online - whatever you can do to get the word out that our rivers, lakes and ponds - and all the wildlife that relies on them - need our help.
So yes, the bad news is that rivers in Britain are in a sorry state. They need some tender loving care and they need everyone to stand up for them. Experts don't seem to think that it's a lost cause - by working together, we can help clean up our rivers and make Britain a safe place for river dwelling creatures, but we have to act now. Now go look at otter pups.