WWF UK Blog  

Why we’re challenging the government over its protection of precious rivers and wetlands


I’ve been working to improve the health of our rivers for the past five years. But, as an organisation, WWF has been doing this work for the past 20. It’s easy to understand why when you think about just how much our rivers support us – water is used for drinking, for businesses, for recreation and provides a home to iconic species like the kingfisher and Atlantic salmon. At the moment though, some of our most precious rivers and wetlands are suffering – and so, working with the Angling Trust and Fish Legal, we are challenging the government’s protection of them in court.

The jewels in our crown

Our countryside is not uniform – and there are some rivers and wetlands in England that are better havens for wildlife than others and they are specially protected. I think of these as ‘the jewels in our crown’ – think Poole Harbour in Dorset, the River Itchen in Hampshire and the Eden in Cumbria. These places are home to some of our most loved and threatened wildlife like bitterns and white-clawed crayfish. These sites are not only vital for wildlife but also for the local communities that rely on them for tourism and recreation.

Scenic of the River Itchen (SAC) as it flows out of the south side of Winchester Hampshire, Scenic view of the River Itchen (SAC) as it flows out of the south side of Winchester
Hampshire, UK © Andrew parkinson

However, over the past six years it has become clear that the government is failing to protect some of these sites. Pollution running off farmland is one of the issues harming these special habitats, and the government is failing in their legal duty to prevent it.

Pollution is harming these precious places

Back in 2009, the government identified around 50 sites that were suffering because of sediments and nutrients running off farmland, and they promised to have them in good health by 2015. However, it is now clear that they will not meet their deadline and these special areas will continue to be polluted.

map showing sites in England suffering from agricultural pollutionSites suffering from agricultural pollution

The government identified Water Protection Zones as the key tool to tackle this issue. But instead of getting on with the job they haven’t been used even once.

Poole Harbour is a case in point – designated a Special Protection Area for birds, it is failing conservation targets because of agricultural pollution. This causes algal blooms each summer, which smother bird feeding grounds and beaches when they wash up on the shoreline. And this is just one example of the places being affected because the government’s effort to date is not sufficient to tackle the problem.

Kingfisher Alcedo atthis, female, back view on branch Kingfisher Alcedo atthis, female, back view on branch © Andy Hay (rspb-images.com)

It is the government’s responsibility to improve these sites

We pride ourselves on working with government, communities and businesses to try and improve the health of our rivers, and we will continue to do so.

But sometimes this just isn’t enough to drive the change that’s needed. The government has failed in its legal requirement to protect these sites. This lack of progress has led us to take this step and challenge them in court.

Everyone needs to play their part and take responsibility for their activities. The agriculture industry, major utilities, business – we all have a role to make sure these precious areas are protected so future generations can enjoy them.

Lots of farmers, water companies and businesses are already doing their part – however, it is the government’s responsibility to make sure that everyone is doing so.

A European Otter (Lutra lutra) on Lake Windermere, Lake District, UK

A European Otter (Lutra lutra) on Lake Windermere, Lake District, UK. © Global warming Images/WWF-Canon

We expect to be in court in November. You can read more about the legal challenging by visiting wwf.org.uk/protectedareas.


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