Drought hits England's wildlife

Posted: 10 August 2006

As parts of England suffer their worst drought for years, a new report backed by a wide rang of environmental agencies says the profligate waste of the country's water has made a bad situation worse.

Wetland nature reserves across southeast England are either counting the cost of this year's low rainfall or wondering how they will be able to cope in the future.

Staff at the RSPB's premier reserve in the southeast, Pulborough Brooks, have major concerns about how much damage will be done if the situation does not improve.

Climate change and two dry winters have put increasing pressure on the country's water resources and wildlife.

But, says a report issued by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, those resources would be better able to cope without the huge volumes of water squandered through the madness of leaking pipes, water greedy housing and over-zealous land drainage.

It highlights how England, which four hundred years ago was covered by huge areas of wetland, is now an over-drained and increasingly desiccated shadow of its former glory.

Changing climate

In a changing climate, the report says it is vital we change our ways or face a future of ever increasing water shortages that will have devastating effects for our wildlife and for us.

The report demands:

  • An increase in the re-use and recycling of water in all areas of society.
  • Higher water efficiency standards for new homes to reduce the impact of more housing.Stringent targets and greater investment to reduce leaks.
  • An end to needless land drainage and the return of England's natural wetlands.
  • More money to help farmers manage their land in a water sensitive way, improving water quality at source and reducing the need for vastly expensive water treatment works.
Phil Burston, the RSPB's water policy officer and author of the report said, "Managing water in this sane way could prevent the need for costly and environmentally damaging new infrastructure and reduce the overall environmental impact of supplying us with water."

Commenting on the disastrous consequences of drought, the report says dry conditions have seen major problems for much of the country's plants and animals.

"While we may not be able to prevent natural drought, we can reduce its impacts on wildlife and the environment by transforming the way we manage water," the report says.

Wetland birds are denied vital breeding habitat and the kinds of invertebrates they need to survive and rear young. Dry soil conditions have also been blamed for the decline in numbers of song thrushes and tree sparrows.

Mammals such as bats also rely on insect-rich wetland, while the burrows of water voles are left exposed by falling river levels.

Amphibians are left high and dry, retreating to garden ponds in search of refuge.

Fish too are affected as the backwaters and side channels of rivers dry out, robbing them of breeding grounds and shallow nurseries for young fish.

Pollutants and nutrients from farmland are concentrated in the shallow water, promoting algal blooms, starving fish of oxygen and killing large numbers.

Running dry

The report warns that without human intervention, many rivers and streams will be emptied of fish.

Drought also threatens the shallow-rooted trees of Southern England's beech woodlands, and leaves its moors and heaths tinder dry and at risk from devastating fires.

Peat bogs become desiccated, flower-rich water meadows dry out and plants on the south's chalk downlands are parched and scorched.

Source:RSPB 10th Augsut 2006. The report has been backed by a wide range of organisations including the WWF, the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust, the Salmon & Trout Association, the Anglers' Conservation Association, The Wildlife Trusts and Waterwise.