Conference makes action on the Itchen a priority – What makes a good chalk stream?

Salmon & Trout Conservation UK (S&TC UK) called on leading figures in the water and conservation industry earlier this month to identify a number of feasible actions that will ensure the future restoration and protection of the world renowned Upper Itchen chalk stream.

More than 30 members of organisations ranging from the Environment Agency and Natural England to Portsmouth University and Aquascience Consultancy as well as third sector bodies such as the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust, Wessex Chalk Stream Trust and the Hampshire & IOW Wildlife Trust, attended this seminal conference organised by S & TC UK.

Addressing the audience at this specially convened event for the purpose of conserving the River Itchen, Paul Knight CEO of S&TC UK said, "Today, we are going to agree the problems and find workable solutions to put this right. It would be terrible to walk away from this meeting and not achieve anything. The purpose of today is to agree action points, decide who does what and importantly, decide who is going to provide the funding."

Recent sampling carried out by S &TC UK revealed that the Upper Itchen is in a poor ecological state compared to historical data, despite its (SAC) Special Area of Conservation status as the most glorious of its kind and its WFD (Water Framework Directive) classification as being 'good' ecologically.

Paul Knight explained the need for urgency, "We believe that radical action must be taken now if we are to hand over the Itchen to future generations in anything like the pristine condition for which this river was once globally famous."

Conference delegates were presented with a number of insightful presentations by leading scientists and ecologists who together with S & TC UK have been assessing the level of damage to the river.

Dr Nick Everall, an ecologist from Aquascience Consultancy – an independent consultant commissioned to carry out research on behalf of S&TC UK – set the scene by explaining how studies on the river are showing the pressure points, particularly the loss of river fly species and Gammarus shrimp. He said, "Control of sediment, phosphorous and organic load on the River Itchen requires some tangible and effective action if the rot is to be stopped and reversed."

Presentations were also given by Dr Kerry Sims, Andy Roberts and Polly Wallace from the Environment Agency, who explained how their monitoring was identifying the problems caused by run-off from agriculture, loss of velocity, septic tanks, fish farming and the subsequent rising levels of phosphates and nitrates. Other ecological factors such as abstraction, rising river temperatures and levels of sediment were also taken into account.

A wide range of urgent action points were put forward by members of the conference ranging from using science to initiate change, to demanding increased commitment from politicians and policy makers to secure the future of our precious chalk stream rivers and streams.

At the end of the conference Paul Knight called on the delegates to come up with a list of key action points that could be implemented in the immediate future. These were:

  1. Political commitment – Policy-makers need to be better informed about the condition and importance of our chalk streams, to ensure they are more engaged in the process of protecting our rivers
  2. Decide parameters – what makes a good chalk stream? Agree acceptable levels of phosphorous, sediment and set ambitious targets to restore fly-life, plant communities and healthy, diverse wild fish stocks
  3. Need to share data – particularly inter-governmentally as well as with third sector organisations and scientists – and generate more targeted data to inform better decision-making
  4. Development – need to influence planning policy because the impact of development, including habitat loss, run-off, air pollution, abstraction and water use, and waste water discharges, is not being addressed properly and the ultimate losers are the river and future generations.
  5. Clearer priorities – address negative environmental impacts caused by industries such as fish farms and watercress farms working in SAC Rivers.
  6. River restoration – Manage velocity and remove obstructions, reduce abstraction, plant more trees and increase knowledge on improved riparian habitat and in-river management practices
  7. Implement more research where required.
  8. Increased awareness: Land managers need to be more aware of their cross-compliance responsibilities in relation to their river corridors and wetlands, and the need to protect the groundwater aquifer
  9. Seize opportunities to secure multiple-benefits for all, and promote partnerships to secure efficiencies and maximise effectiveness.

Concluding the conference, Paul Knight said, "I am really impressed by the response today. It has been a fantastic achievement to have so many people with a commitment to restore the river Itchen in one room. We have looked at the problems in great detail and thank you to all our speakers. We have also looked at the sources of these problems and for this I thank the Environment Agency. But importantly we have looked at the solutions and this is the real point of our conference today. I think we are now going away with a good action plan and in the coming months I hope that we will start to deliver this in order to resolve the many shocking issues that are now impacting on the health and future well-being of our wonderful river Itchen.

"However, our first priority is to decide what a chalk stream should look like. It is extraordinary that in the 21st Century, we do not have a clear definition. It is therefore a priority that our working party, including third sector and government agencies, agree the parameters and numeric measurable standards, and use this as a baseline for agreeing acceptable levels in future decisions."