Complaint by Salmon & Trout Association highlights lack of delivery and years of prevarication in failure to comply with the Habitats Directive on River Avon SAC

The Salmon & Trout Association (S&TA) has today (27th September) submitted to the European Commission a formal legal complaint against the United Kingdom for its failure to protect English chalkstreams, particularly the Hampshire Avon, as it is required to do under the EU Habitats Directive.

As the UK hosts almost all the chalkstreams of Europe, it has a particular responsibility to ensure their protection and conservation. However, of 161 chalk rivers and streams across England, only four have been designated under the Habitats Directive – the Hampshire Avon, Itchen, Wensum and Lambourn. The condition of these four rivers is poor and they are not currently meeting the various targets and objectives laid down in the Habitats Directive.

Taking the Hampshire Avon SAC as a case study, and basis for the Complaint, the S&TA has examined the various plans, strategies and reports going back to the formation of the National Rivers Authority (ie the NRA Catchment Management Plan, the various Salmon Action Plans, the Local Environment Agency Plans, the Catchment Abstraction Management Strategy (CAMS), culminating in the Review of Consents process undertaken by the Environment Agency to examine whether activities that it consents or permits on the river – such as abstraction and effluent discharges – are or could be having an impact on the River Avon SAC and the species for which it is designated, including Atlantic salmon.

Specifically, the Complaint shows that the UK has failed:

  • to comply with Articles 2 and 6 of the Habitats Directive and is highly likely to fail to comply with Article 4(1)(c) of the Water Framework Directive in respect of the River Avon;
  • to apply a sufficiently precautionary approach to the protection of the River Avon SAC, contrary to the requirements of Article 191 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union, erring instead on the side of supporting the status quo and avoiding as far as possible the need to amend, revoke or vary existing consents and permissions on the River Avon SAC;
  • to establish the necessary conservation measures, appropriate management plans and appropriate statutory, administrative or contractual measures to protect the natural habitat types and species of the River Avon SAC, relating to the impacts caused by low-flows, over-abstraction of water, including for public water supply and nutrient and other pollution.
  • to avoid the deterioration of natural habitats and species on the Hampshire Avon since its designation under the Habitats Directive.

In particular, the evidence on that iconic species, the Atlantic salmon, for which the Hampshire Avon SAC is designated, shows that the UK has patently failed to take the steps it is required by law to do. As a result the Avon salmon population is under severe threat and has consistently failed to meet conservation limits set for its long-term viability.
(see chart at end).

Paul Knight, S&TA CEO, declares: “We have been forced to take this action by the failure of ambition and delivery on the part of the UK Government and its agencies. The prospects for chalkstream habitats are ‘bad and deteriorating’. Their long-term viability is far from assured. Yet the UK has failed to get to grips with over-abstraction, reduced flows, nutrient inputs and a range of other issues which combine to cause ‘chalkstream malaise”.

He continues, “The condition of the salmon population of the Hampshire Avon is very poor and is deteriorating – it is a shadow of its 1980s levels. The UK Government and its agencies understand why this is happening, but they have singularly failed adequately to address the root causes – low flows, over-abstraction, nutrient pollution, siltation.

“The Hampshire Avon is an SAC, part of the European network of the most valuable and protected nature conservation sites in Europe. If the UK Government isn’t prepared to show the necessary political will and ambition to protect nature here, one is left to wonder where it will.”

Guy Linley-Adams, Solicitor to the S&TA, who drew up the legal complaint, points out, “The UK negotiated and then signed up to the Habitats Directive and the high level of protection for our very best nature conservation sites and key species that it requires. Delivery of that high level of protection is not optional, it is required by law. It is regrettable that the S&TA has to appeal to the European Commission for help in ensuring that the Hampshire Avon and its salmon are protected for future generations.”

Teresa Dent, Chief Executive of the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust (GWCT), says: “GWCT supports the complaint made by the Salmon and Trout Association relating to the condition of the Hampshire Avon SAC, which is substantiated by the available evidence. The condition of our chalk rivers, and much of the wildlife that depends upon them, has been a matter of serious concern for many years under successive governments.

“It is vital that Government acts effectively and promptly on the best scientific evidence and advice to remedy the situation. We urge this Government to take the welcome opportunity provided by its draft Water Bill to address the question of over-abstraction. We have successfully researched over many years how to manage such rivers effectively, but our prescriptions and the ecosystem rely on a predictable water flow.

She concludes: “GWCT is strongly in favour of practical solutions, working wherever possible in partnership with interested parties, including farmers and developers. Specifically, we suggest that agri-environment schemes be targeted to help protect the habitat of chalk streams and rivers and that all viable measures be taken to reduce the consumption of water whether domestic, industrial, horticultural or agricultural.”

The UK Government recently published a Water White Paper and has even more recently published a draft Water Bill which presents an opportunity to deal with many of the criticisms raised in the S&TA’s complaint, particularly those in relation to over-abstraction and restoring sustainable abstraction on English rivers.

By taking this unprecedented action, the S&TA hopes to compel the UK Government to take the measures necessary to deal with these problems, not only on the River Avon SAC or indeed just on the four chalkstream SACs (all of which suffer from broadly similar problems to the River Avon), but those being suffered by many English and Welsh rivers across the board.

Egg Desposition

Egg deposition (millions) in the Avon as a percentage of the new Conservation Limit of 6.94 million eggs since 1997

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