Wilderness despoiled by water companies

Wetlands at risk: Rare plant and wildlife being threatened by excessive water extraction from rivers, fens, lakes and bogs
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Some of Britain's best wetland wildlife sites are being damaged because water companies are taking too much from them, a report from the Government's official nature-conservation arm said yesterday.

English Nature said that 89 officially designated Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) were at risk from over-abstraction of water from boreholes sunk into aquifers or direct from rivers. While water companies were the chief culprits, farmers with spray irrigation, mineral companies, golf courses and fish farms were also to blame.

The sites in question are streams and rivers, lakes, fens and bogs. All have been designated as SSSIs because they have unusual or particularly rich plant and animal life. If the damage continues, some will eventually lose this status.

The report is based on a survey of some 160 sites which English Nature judged might be at risk from over-abstraction. It demonstrates that while Britain's human population escaped a drought this summer, wildlife which depends on wet places is in retreat as the nation's demand for water slowly but steadily rises.

Chris Newbold, English Nature's senior wetland ecologist, said 18 of the 89 SSSIs had already been harmed by over-abstraction, including four rivers. Water companies were to blame for a dozen of these.

He singled out Hatfield Chase, on Humberside, which has been hard hit by farms taking water from boreholes for spray irrigation.

''It's a degraded bog now,'' he said. ''This summer you could walk across it and hardly get your boots wet. You lose the more interesting, unusual flora. For instance sundews, carnivorous plants which trap insects in sticky secretions, have become quite rare on that site.

''The general trend on these SSSIs which are drying out is an attrition of the richness of species.''

Four rivers which are SSSIs or proposed SSSIs have been affected - the Hull, the Hampshire Avon, the Blythe in Worcestershire and the De Lank, a moorland tributary of the river Camel in Cornwall.

These are among the jewels in the crown of England's rivers, as only 4 per cent of the total riverbank length designated as SSSIs. The De Lank, Camel and Hull have all been hit by water-company abstractions, while the Blythe has large quantities of water taken from it by British Waterways Board for its canals.

Dr Newbold said negotiations to reduce water usage and lessen the environmental damage were under way at about 40 per cent of the worst-affected sites.

A friends of the Earth wildlife campaigner, Matt Phillips, said: ''Just this summer the Department of the Environment granted Yorkshire Water a drought order to take extra water from the river Hull.

''As water demand continues to rise over the next few decades, there's going to be a very serious impact on wildlife. The water companies need to start investing much, much more in conservation, repairing leaks and giving their customers help with getting showers, water-butts, low-flush toilets and so on.''

English Nature believes one answer is to store more water in winter, when rainfall is heaviest - in small reservoirs serving individual farms and golf courses or in larger ones built by water-supply companies. Yet many environmentalists strongly oppose construction of big new reservoirs.

Companies and individuals which abstract water need a licence from the Government's environment agency. But for some of the older licences, granted 30 years ago or more, the agency can only alter its terms and demand less water is taken if compensation is paid.