Turning words into action for the Itchen

We have recently joined forces with academics, anglers, fisheries scientists, conservation organisations and the Environment Agency to discuss the crucial next stages of protecting the famous Upper Itchen chalkstream in Hampshire. The battle to restore this world-renowned river to its former glory started last year when we met with other leading figures in the water and conservation sectors and agreed a 10-point action plan to ensure the future restoration and protection of this SAC chalkstream.

Encouragingly, many of the actions that were agreed last year have come to fruition. One of the key areas was to decide exactly what makes a good chalkstream. In this regard, the Hampshire Environment Agency have, for the first time, agreed key environmental targets for the rivers Test and Itchen to help drive ecological improvements.

Other actions which were identified and are now taking shape, including the need to share data, the need to address negative environmental impacts from industries such as fish farming, watercress businesses and agriculture and to achieve more political commitment from policy-makes about the importance of protecting our chalkstreams.

Paul Knight, CEO of S&TC said:

“We have been gathering considerable evidence since last year and it is time to turn evidence into action. It is vital that we all work together to protect this SAC river for future generations. Our Riverfly Census research is the first of its kind to give such a microscopic picture of the health of our river systems. We are delighted that the Environment Agency in Hampshire is leading the way in recognising the benefits of this detailed sampling and analysis and have agreed specific targets for mayfly species and Gammarus shrimp. This is really a step in the right direction and we hope it will set up a precedent that other areas will follow.”

At the conference, other speakers, who form part of this important initiative, presented their research and actions since last year. Mike O’Neill from the Environment Agency, agreed that action on the Itchen was one of their main priorities. He said:

“We are looking at solutions for the Upper Itchen and have made good progress in the last 12 months to help make the Itchen the chalkstream it should be. But we can only do this by working with other organisations and to continue the current downward trend of reducing phosphates in the river.”

However, as Ali Morse from the Hampshire & Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust explained:

“Phosphorus is one of the key drivers that is causing major problems with pollution. We have established a Phosphate Action Plan, which aims to help organisations share data as well as identifying what needs to be done to deliver improved water quality on the Itchen. We are in the process of producing a draft consultation and following this meeting will share this with stakeholders and Natural England in an effort to bring about more action.”

The conference also identified that septic tanks and private sewerage treatment systems, when not properly managed are another measurable factor in river pollution.

Paul Knight continued:

“It is shocking that these systems are not being properly managed and indeed we feel that there is no longer a need for these systems. Sewage should be channelled through the mains drainage system and we are gathering further evidence to ensure that future developments – especially those near water courses – are part of the mains system. In Germany it is unheard of to have a septic tank and there is no justification for us to continue this practice in this country.”

Agricultural pollution into the Itchen is still a major cause of concern and our Riverfly Census has clearly revealed that the Upper Itchen is in a poor ecological state because of phosphate and sediment pollution.

Dr Alastair Leake, from the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust (GWCT), has been carrying out research on soil degradation and the results are impressive. He explained to delegates:

“An increase in phosphates and sediment in our rivers can be directly attributed to agricultural practices. But our research is showing the by implementing a few simple measure, such as a reduction in ploughing or zero-till, which encourages earthworms and improves soil quality, can reduce soil loss by up to 98%. Soil will becomes more resilient, there is less soil erosion into rivers. Significantly farmers could see an increase in yields by as much as 20%.”

At the conference we also reported our partnership with the Test and Itchen Association, who have agreed to fund the continuation of its national Riverfly Census on the Test and Itchen chalkstreams in 2017.

This important river survey involves collecting river invertebrate samples at a number of different sites on these two iconic chalk rivers this spring and autumn. The results, which are analysed down to species level, not only provide a benchmark for future ecological surveys, it also helps to highlight the causes and sources of any damaging pollutants, which can adversely impact on invertebrate species richness and abundance and ultimately the health of these two rivers.

Concluding the conference, Paul Knight said:

“We have now reached the stage where we are turning evidence into action for the Itchen. The shocking results of our Riverfly Census on the Itchen was a wake-up call. If we cannot protect the Itchen, which has an extremely high conservation status, then there is little hope for other rivers. Today’s conference highlighted how progress can be made by working collaboratively and it is encouraging that we are now starting to deliver results in order to resolve many of the negative impacts that are affecting the health and future well-being of our wonderful river Itchen.”