Half of Europe's freshwater habitats 'ruined'

Half of Europe's freshwater wildlife habitat has been destroyed over the last 50 years, according to a new report by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF). The United Kingdom is no exception, with most of its rivers and streams severely degraded and no longer able to support significant wildlife.

Half of Europe's freshwater wildlife habitat has been destroyed over the last 50 years, according to a new report by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF). The United Kingdom is no exception, with most of its rivers and streams severely degraded and no longer able to support significant wildlife.

Only 15 per cent of the UK's 150,000 miles of freshwater channels remain in a "natural condition", according to WWF's Living Rivers report, with the remainder dredged and culverted into drainage ditches, straightened and canalised for navigation, or constrained by hard, lifeless banks.

Only one acre in 40 of the flood-plain wetlands that once spread over our river valleys has survived centuries of drainage for intensive farming and urban development. One in three UK rivers is colonised by alien plants, and pollution is widespread, from sewage works and factories and poor agricultural practice.

The legal protection given to surviving wildlife-rich fresh water is completely inadequate, the WWF says.

For example, the river Usk in Wales, with its otters, salmon, brook lampreys and trout, has the highest level of protection as a site of special scientific interest. Yet a 28-acre greenfield site on its banks is likely to be developed by the Welsh Rugby Union as a centre of sports excellence - with roads, training halls, floodlit pitches, and parking for 500 cars.

In other European countries, yet more destructive developments are planned or under way. The Greek government is rerouting the entire river Acheloos in defiance of EU environment law. Construction works will cause irreversible damage to otter and trout populations and the dessication of the Messolongi wetlands.

Giant engineering projects such as these have already had a catastrophic effect across the EU. Damming has blocked the passage of migratory fish such as salmon and sturgeon, while dredging and siltation has deprived them of their spawning gravels. Of Europe's 33 species of migratory fish, 11 are globally endangered, six are vulnerable and three are rare. Juvenile recruits of Atlantic salmon have collapsed from 600,000 in the early Seventies to 100,000.

Yet all is far from lost. The WWF report applauds the efforts being made across Europe to restore rivers and return their original wildlife. In Germany, 50,000 acres of the Rhine's flood plains are being rehabilitated, while a band of protected areas is planned for the Elbe. The Danube is slowly coming back to life. In Hungary, moves are afoot to restore the Gemenc Forest and allow the river to flood into its many oxbow lakes and backwaters, preparing the way for the reintroduction of the beaver.

In Britain, Scottish Natural Heritage is preparing to reintroduce the beaver, extinct in the country for 500 years. The Environment Agency in England and Wales also has a number of projects to restore rivers - although the funds available are under 1 per cent of that spent on land drainage and flood control.

Now the WWF is urging the Government to push for the strongest possible Water Framework Directive, under negotiation at the EU, to ensure protection of wetlands and freshwater habitats.

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