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Conservation & the Environment

Wildlife suffering as countryside dries out

Farming and wildlife likely to come into conflict as limited water directed to domestic supply

Nature experts warn that this summer could be the worst for wildlife in over 30 years if the current period of low rainfall continues.

Rainfall has been so low that in many areas the level of moisture in the soil is currently worse than in 1976, when the UK suffered one of the most severe droughts on record[i].

All creatures need water to survive and reports from around the UK indicate wildlife is already being affected. At WWT’s Welney Wetland Centre in Norfolk there has not been enough rainfall to flood the grassland habitats, which has meant less food for grazing ducks such as wigeon. It is a similar

situation at WWT’s London Wetland Centre, where the low flow of water through the reserve has reduced the number of waterfowl.

Although water supply to most homes may not be affected as water companies have measures in place to collect and store enough water for domestic supply, this comes at the expense of the countryside. Farming is already under pressure to produce crops with an uncertain water supply. If supplies dwindle as predicted this summer, the conflict is likely to be pitched as farming vs. wildlife when really both are victims of the way water is used and managed.

WWT’s Head of Wetland Conservation, Rob Shore, has been hearing reports from WWT’s wetland reserves around the

An Easier Life for the Mersey's eels

The Environment Agency is making life a little easier for the Mersey’s eel population. To help them migrate further upstream a new ladder (eel pass) is being installed so they can scale Woolston Weir, Warrington with ease.

In the last 30 years the European Eel population has dramatically declined. The number of elvers (young eels) migrating into European rivers has fallen to less than 5% of 1980s levels. This decline has put the European Eel on the endangered species list and made it the subject of new European legislation to protect them and aid their recovery.

Ben Bayliss, Environment Agency Project Manager , said: “The causes of the drastic decline in European eel numbers is still being investigated, but we hope by making it easier for the elvers to get up and down stream it will improve their breeding prospects and so give a boost to their numbers.”

To assess if removing barriers to migrating eels is effective the Environment Agency will install monitoring equipment. This will include a holding tank where eels can be counted and checked,

alongside a webcam and telemetry systems to monitor the level and flow speeds of the river.

Ben continues: “Our rivers are the healthiest for 20 years. By installing this eel pass we are fulfilling our commitment to further improve water quality and biodiversity.”

Eels have a curious breading cycle. It is believed that they spawn in the Sargasso Sea in the North Atlantic Ocean after which the adult eels die. The larve then drift towards Europe. When they near the UK coastline they change into a transparent larval stage called "glass eel", and enter estuaries and start migrating upstream. After entering fresh water the glass eels change into elvers. When they are fully grown (between 5 - 20 years) the eels leave our inland fresh waters and head back to the Sargasso Sea to spawn and the cycle continues.

country. He said: “We haven’t yet had the dreaded hosepipe ban warnings but wildlife is the proverbial canary in the cage. We want government to tackle this problem before it gets out of hand – not just relieving the problem this year but by putting plans in place to prevent this happening again.”

“We have the technical solutions and have identified regulation, from farming subsidies to water company regulation, which could be tweaked to keep more water on the land to help wildlife and farmers. Ultimately it will benefit all of us as consumers.”

One solution being proposed is to create lots of small wetland areas to capture rainwater when it does fall. By slowing the flow of water off the

land these allow more water to percolate into soils and aquifers. The added benefit is that they prevent soil, nutrients and other pollutants from being washed into our rivers, which in turn reduces the costs of water treatment. Rob Shore continued:

“We’re struggling to keep our wetlands wet in winter which is virtually unheard of. The knock on effect will be on the birds breeding in spring, so it is easy to see how quickly this can escalate. What we are proposing are small but sensible changes, which bring very tangible benefits for all of us.”

Despite some recent rain, the majority of river systems in England or Wales are currently flowing at below average levels and many are critically low[ii]. The situation is even worse for our groundwater supplies, which have not been replenished over the autumn and winter.

Rain has generally fallen in short, heavy bursts and run straight off the dry, compacted land and very quickly ended up in the sea. This is already raising the threat of flooding at the same time as drought. Climate change is predicted to bring heavier and less frequent rain making this a more common occurrence.

Cherwell fish travel upstream for the first time in hundreds of years

migrate upstream to utilise spawning grounds that might otherwise proved to be inaccessible.”

Fish in the Cherwell will be able to swim upstream of Kidlington in the River Cherwell for the first time in hundreds of years following the completion of a new fish pass built by the Environment Agency.

The new pool and traverse fish pass constructed from gabions - baskets filled with stones will allow fish to gain access past Kidlington Mill, which previously proved impassable to fish. The pass will allow fish populations access to new spawning grounds upstream of the mill.

Tom Sherwood, Environment Agency Fisheries Officer for the Cherwell catchment said: ”This new fish pass improves the connectivity of the lower Cherwell. By allowing fish to by-pass Kidlington Mill they can now move unimpeded from Oxford all the way up to Shipton-on-Cherwell. Providing fish passage is important on all rivers as it allows fish to

The new fish pass is part of a series of habitat enhancements that have been carried out over the last few months on the lower Cherwell to help improve local fish populations. Other schemes have been included to provide vital habitat for juvenile fish, including the creation of backwaters, which used to be a common feature on many of the region’s lowland rivers, but have been lost due to historical dredging. Spawning gravels have also been added to the bed of the Cherwell, which have contributed to preventing deterioration of the ecological status under the Water Framework Directive.

Much of the work has been undertaken in conjunction with the local angling club and the Kidlington Angling Society.

The project is partly funded by money from the Water Framework Directive. The Environment Agency receives money from the government to implement this directive, which is European legislation designed to improve and protect all waters – on the surface and underground. 31

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