Scotland's rivers, a vital natural resource for multi-million pound industries including tourism, whisky and fishing, are being destroyed by pollution and building developments, the World Wide Fund for Nature warned yesterday.
The environmental group said "wild" rivers were dying out north of the border as discharges of fertilisers and industrial pollution increased.
Salmon and trout were in decline and leisure pursuits such as fishing and rafting which generate millions of pounds a year were at risk, a report released in Edinburgh said. The future of "natural" industries such as whisky distilling, which depend on clean natural water sources, was also threatened.
WWF Scotland said the deforestation of river banks, the construction of new flood control measures, hydro-electric schemes and the increased use of fertilisers and insecticides, meant that "the cherished image of Scottish rivers wild and free is largely an illusion".
Through its Wild Rivers campaign, the organisation hopes to encourage landowners, industrialists and river users to work together to rebuild natural river environments. Simon Pepper, head of WWF Scotland, said the organisation would build on successful river regeneration schemes in France and the Netherlands to "heal this highly important and fragile resource". Discussions with landowners and anglers had already begun.
Mr Pepper said: "From source to mouth, most of our rivers are subjected to a variety of unnatural influences. The problem is getting more serious year by year. There isn't a major single catastrophic event which we can point to but there is a long slow process of degradation taking place and we need to catch this before it goes too far. Scots are proud of their rivers. They are very important as a habitat for wildlife but also for people who get great satisfaction from them. They must be saved."
New laws might be needed to impose stricter environmental standards on farmers and industrialists, Mr Pepper said. "But in the short term we believe much can be achieved by people working together - landowners, farmers, canoeists, anglers, builders. We want to draw attention to the need for these interests to combine their efforts to safeguard rivers."
Elizabeth Leighton, head of the Wild Rivers initiative, said: "All manner of people come to Scotland to enjoy the purity of the environment and all manner of products use that environment as a marketing tool. If we lose the purity of Scotland's rivers, we lose a lot more than a few stretches of water. We lose part of the essence of Scotland."