I was stunned to learn this week about the truly shocking state of our freshwater lakes, rivers and ponds, and to discover that clean water is now virtually extinct as a habitat in England. The figures speak for themselves; according to the Environment Agency there is not a single lowland river in England that has not been damaged, either chemically or physically. Some 87% of the headwater streams in south-eastern Britain are classified as biologically degraded and there is only one lake that is classified as chemically undamaged across the whole of England and Wales. This damage is having an impact on the wildlife of these waterbodies with, for example, CEH and Pond Conservation charting a 20% decline in plant richness in lowland ponds in just the last ten years.
It is not so much the stark figures themselves that deliver the sense of shock but rather the fact that we have tended to think of our rural ponds and rivers as being largely untouched by our activities. The twin evils of habitat loss and pollution have been insidious in their effects and the damage caused has not been apparent to the casual observer. The ponds and waterways are still there and they still contain life, just not as much as they did before. In the case of pollution, it has been the leaching of nutrients and biocides from agriculture, coupled with the toxic cocktail that runs off from our roads, that has delivered a decisive and deadly blow, an unseen venomous brew that has changed the delicate balance of species and numbers within our formerly diverse waterbodies.
It is easy to see why this has happened; we live on an overcrowded island, travel around in the selfish comfort of our cars and demand ever-cheaper food on an industrial scale. We have never been very good at looking after things that lie beyond our immediate horizons, the small things that are easily overlooked and dismissed as being unimportant. The scale of the damage already caused might seem bleak, and the solutions offered challenging, but there is hope in the efforts of conservation bodies to create new high-quality freshwater habitats and improve the condition of existing ones. Some of the ponds created in the last few years have already shown their worth, falling within the richest 1% of more than a thousand ponds surveyed for their biodiversity. There is much still to be done, especially when it comes to restoring the condition of existing waterbodies and managing polluting run-off at a landscape scale. We need to build on the short term successes and tackle these landscape-scale challenges, safeguarding our aquifers and the clean waterbodies they should support.