Where is our river wildlife?

Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall supports launch of new riverbank nature survey

Where is the best river to spot water voles? Which county is a hotspot for kingfishers? Which waterways are teeming with trout?

A major new public survey launched today (Monday, July 11) at www.ourrivers.org.uk is aiming to answer these questions and more by collecting information about the wildlife people in England and Wales encounter on their local river.

The survey results will be used in the second annual awards from the Our Rivers campaign, led by WWF-UK, RSPB, the Angling Trust and the Salmon and Trout Association. The awards will include the best rivers for spotting wildlife and the county whose rivers are most treasured by local people.

Last year thousands of people took part in the first public awards carried out by the Our Rivers campaign to find the nation’s favourite river. The River Wye won the public poll, while the River Thames was highlighted as people’s least favourite waterway.

Jack Clarke, from the Our Rivers campaign, said: "Rivers are fantastic places to watch wildlife – from the lazy glide of a graceful swan and the blue flash of a diving kingfisher to the spectacle of leaping salmon and the summer emergence of dragonflies.

"Many of us have a river close to our homes where we love to walk, fish or simply sit and reflect and we’re hoping we can encourage this national army of river wildlife spotters to tell us what they have seen.

"We’re really looking forward to hearing which species people have seen in their area, but we are also asking what has changed and been lost. As well as encouraging people to enjoy their local river wildlife there is also serious, and worrying, message behind this.

"Much of our native river wildlife is threatened by rural and urban pollution, over abstraction, sewage discharges and invasive species. An official Environment Agency report says nearly three quarters of rivers in England and Wales are failing European environmental targets.

"We need to raise awareness of these issues and put pressure on the Government to do something about them ahead of the publication of the upcoming Water White Paper. This document will set out how our Government cares for our river network and the wildlife that depends on it."

TV chef, wildlife lover and keen angler Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall is supporting the survey and has spoken about spotting wildlife on the River Axe, which runs close to his River Cottage headquarters in Dorset.

"I love the Axe, and particularly the Axe estuary," he said. "It’s such a pretty little river, and full of bounty.

"The sea trout which I can never catch. The samphire which fortunately has nowhere to run and hide. And the wonderful wading birds, godwits, egrets and curlew, that strut and stab along the muddy flanks of the estuary.

"Now I have a little fishing boat in Seaton harbour, I’m down there as often as I can be. It’s a challenging tidal harbour to get in and out of, especially when the tide’s coming in at 5 knots, and the top speed of your boat is 5 and a half!"

The Government’s upcoming Water White Paper will set out its ambitions for improving river and wetlands and Our Rivers supporters have been writing to environment minister Richard Benyon to make their voices heard.

The campaign is urging ministers to tackle the issue of over abstraction which results in low flowing waterways and dry riverbeds. The Government has itself identified 148 rivers where over abstraction is damaging rivers and wildlife they support, but there has been no action to reduce the amount of water taken.

The Water White Paper must set out a clear timetable and strategy for reducing damaging abstraction and demonstrate how more will be done to encourage water efficiency through universal metering and fixing our leaking network of water pipes.