COP26: Norfolk’s chalk streams – a rare and beautiful habitat under threat

East Anglia’s rare and beautiful chalk streams are under severe threat, but local communities in Norfolk are working hard to protect them.

The River Babingley: a chalk stream
The River Babingley: a chalk stream. Photo by Russell Biggs.

A cool, clear stream meandering steadily through a bed of soft chalk. Rich vegetation lines the banks, while the waters teem with a host of aquatic fauna. It’s a quintessential East Anglian scene, but one that is coming under ever greater threat from pollution, climate change, and over-abstraction. In Norfolk, campaigners and charities are working hard to reverse the decline, but they are swimming against a strong current.

What are chalk streams and why are they important?

Chalk streams are an extremely rare habitat – there are only around 260 in the world, and about 85 percent of them are in the south and east of England. Rising from chalk aquifers and springs, these streams are known for their purity.

Chalk streams support a unique ecology: the clean water of healthy chalk streams is excellent for trout and salmon, their strong, steady flow is good for rare plants such as water crowfoot, and their high concentration of calcium carbonate provides ideal conditions for invertebrates, including white-clawed crayfish.

Norfolk is home to a large number of these streams, including the Wensum, Gaywood and Babingley.

What’s the problem?

The World Wildlife Fund’s 2014 report on The State of England’s Chalk Streams found that over three quarters of England’s chalk streams are not in good health.

One of the biggest problems facing England’s chalk stream (and its rivers more generally) is over-abstraction. Put simply, we are taking water out of many of our rivers faster than it can be replaced, as this video from prominent campaigner Feargal Sharkey poignantly shows.

Water quality, and therefore the habitat of animals and plants living in or on the river, is also severely affected by fertilisers, pesticides, and sewage.

Chalk streams are also affected by climate change – changing weather patterns affect water levels in rivers and aquifers, leading, counterintuitively, both to more droughts and more floods.

Working hard to save Norfolk’s chalk streams

Norfolk Rivers Trust is a charity working across Norfolk, as well as on the Cam and Ouse, to “ensure that the quality of water provides the best habitat to benefit people and wildlife”. Their work includes conservation and restoration of aquatic habitats, education and engagement (including this excellent short film, narrated by Stephen Fry), and advice on land management and farming.

A recent project saw the Trust providing expert assistance to the Defra-supported ‘Woodlands for Water’ project in selecting appropriate locations for trees in river ‘catchment areas’, to ensure that they provide benefits such as capturing pollutants, preventing floods and droughts, and creating wildlife corridors.

Technical Director and river ecologist Dr Jonah Tosney says:

East Anglia’s chalk streams are globally unique ecosystems, supporting an amazing array of life. We have water voles and native crayfish which have disappeared from huge areas of England, we have eels swimming here from the Sargasso sea, we have kingfishers, trout and otters, and streams of water-crowfoot and blooms of starwort. The East Anglian chalk filters the water, providing clean, cool and constant flows and a perfect environment for aquatic plants and hundreds of species of insects, molluscs and crustaceans.

However, our streams are under huge pressure. The amount of water we take for household supply has risen enormously, and our sewage networks are unable to cope with the growing population and the changing nature of what we flush. Nutrients (from sewage and agriculture) are possibly the greatest problem for our rivers, as they change the entire balance of ecosystems, but also microplastics, fire retardants and a huge range of pharmaceuticals find their way into our streams. In order for our rivers to survive, we need to allow them enough water to live and to ensure what we put into them is life-giving, rather than toxic.

Environmental campaigner Russell Biggs is also working hard to protect Norfolk’s chalk streams, through his activism. He says: “Our chalk streams should all be protected and have full environmental status, but sadly they’re polluted with sewage, agricultural, road and industrial runoff, and of course over-abstracted. With only 225 in the world, they should all be designated as protected sites.”

Biggs points out that, while the upper reaches of the River Babingley are “probably Norfolk’s best example of a chalk stream”, only eight miles away lies the heavily polluted Gaywood River, which runs through the middle of King’s Lynn. The Gaywood is in dire need of restoration. “It’s now lifeless,” he says. “I have been complaining and repeatedly reporting pollution incidents to the Environment Agency for over four years, and sadly this river is not getting the protection it deserves.”

What is the Government doing?

On 19 October, the independent Chalk Stream Restoration Group announced its new Chalk Stream Restoration Strategy. The strategy outlines the current issues threatening chalk streams in England and what must be done to protect the three key indicators of ecological health: water quantity; water quality; and physical habitats. It recommends enhanced status for chalk streams to drive investment to prevent pollution and over-abstraction, as well as restoring habitat to boost biodiversity.

Speaking at the announcement of the Strategy, Environment Minister Rebecca Pow commented: “Chalk streams are both incredibly rare and a hugely important part of our environmental heritage.”

“That’s why on behalf of the government I called for the creation of an independent CaBA*-led working group, the Chalk Streams Restoration Group, last year and welcome its ambitious strategy. Action is in progress wherever possible with our flagship projects programme underway.”
[*Catchment Based Approach]

Last week, the Government was forced into an abrupt U-turn following a public outcry surrounding Conservative MPs’ vote not to require water companies to reduce raw sewage discharges as part of the Environment Bill. Rebecca Pow joined most of her Conservative colleagues in voting against Labour’s amendment to the Environment Bill calling on water companies to make improvements to their sewerage systems and demonstrate progressive reductions in the harm caused by discharges of untreated sewage.’

Biggs commented: “The exposure of the dumping of sewage in our rivers is now having a positive effect (…) the water companies’ dirty little secret has been exposed.”

It remains to be seen how far increased public awareness will lead to action that is sufficient to protect this unique habitat. For campaigners, charities and nature lovers, the struggle to save our chalk streams goes on.

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