Nature Studies: We’ve cleaned up most of our rivers – but what about the rest?

Chalk rivers in particular are being hard hit by a subtle form of pollution

Share

In post-modern literary criticism, a “narrative” is a version of events, which may not be true, but which everybody believes. Here’s a good example.

It is 12 years next month since the Environment Agency first proclaimed that rivers in England and Wales were now cleaner than at any time since the start of the industrial revolution 200 years ago.

It was a significant moment; although the announcement was greeted with some scepticism, there was also widespread recognition that things had indeed changed, and the phenomenon of the watercourse whose waters flow lurid orange with industrial wastes was becoming largely a memory.

Michael Meacher, Environment Minister at the time, remarked: “People don’t come back from the dead, but rivers do”; as if to prove him right, on the very day he said it, the first salmon for 130 years were caught in the River Mersey. And it is true that we have cleaned up the worst of the industrial pollution of our rivers; to be technical, we have dealt with what is known as point-source pollution, that is, stuff pouring out of the end of a pipe. Most of that’s gone, thank God.

But this particular narrative – that our rivers are generally now OK – is being fiercely challenged by people concerned with the welfare of what are often regarded as the loveliest rivers of all, the chalk streams.  These are the rivers that rise on the great band of calcium carbonate that stretches diagonally across England from Dorset, through Salisbury Plain, the Berkshire Downs and the Chilterns, to Norfolk, Lincolnshire and Yorkshire.

Because their water is filtered by the chalk, it is “gin-clear”, and almost unimaginably pure, and because it is so alkaline, it supports a profusion of plant, insect, and fish life. Many people consider these the most beautiful rivers on the planet – I’m certainly one – and the 161 of them which occur in England, from the queen of them all, Hampshire’s River Test, down, represent 85 per cent of the world’s chalk stream resource, most of the rest being in Normandy.

While Northern industrial rivers like the Mersey were running orange, people would point to the chalk streams as the ideal of river perfection; but now the positions are reversed.

The chalk rivers in their turn are being hard hit by a subtler form of pollution, far harder to deal with than the point-source variety. This is diffuse pollution, meaning it comes from an infinite number of sources – principally, the run-off of silt and agricultural chemicals, both fertilisers and pesticides, from farmers’ fields.  They are also being clobbered by over-abstraction of their water by water companies, desperate to get their hands on such pure stuff.

Leading the campaign for the chalk streams’ plight to be recognised is the Salmon and Trout Association, which in recent years has morphed from a purely anglers’ organisation into more of a pressure group for the aquatic environment. It is playing hardball; it has made an official complaint to the European Commission that the Government is failing in its duty under the EU Habitats Directive to look after the Hampshire Avon, a chalk river whose salmon numbers are a mere fraction of what they should be.

“A significant number of the English chalk streams are now in a degraded state,” said Paul Knight, the S&TA chief executive. “We need policies on land management and abstraction to put them right.”

To prove his point, last week he invited me to a part of the middle Test, which at first glance – ie, on the surface –  looks exquisite: but an expert eye sees a different picture under water.

Parts of the gravel beds trout need to spawn in are now covered in silt, others by “blanket weed” algae fertilised by agricultural phosphates, and the water level is far below what it should be; a sample of the invertebrate life of the river bed shows that the abundance of freshwater shrimps and mayfly larvae that would normally be expected is simply not there. “I think the river’s condition is awful,” Paul Knight said.

It may well be true that most of our rivers do have less industrial pollution in them than they did. But that’s only one narrative. There’s another: that some of the loveliest of all our rivers, even if it’s harder to recognise, are now in serious trouble in a different way.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Telesales & Customer Service Executives - Outbound & Inbound

£7 - £9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: Are you outgoing? Do you want to work in...

Recruitment Genius: National Account Manager / Key Account Sales

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An opportunity has arisen for a...

Recruitment Genius: Operations Manager

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An exciting opportunity to join...

Recruitment Genius: Recruitment Consultant

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: We have an excellent role for a...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Letter from the Political Editor: Mr. Cameron is beginning to earn small victories in Europe

Andrew Grice
Pakistani volunteers carry a student injured in the shootout at a school under attack by Taliban gunmen, at a local hospital in Peshawar  

The Only Way is Ethics: The paper’s readers and users of our website want different things

Will Gore
Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

The 12 ways of Christmas

We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

The male exhibits strange behaviour

A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'