In England, our freshwater environment is in dire trouble. Freshwater biodiversity is disappearing, from sensitive water plants on the verge of extinction in this country, to the magnificent salmon and our precious native crayfish. Most worryingly we have the first evidence of whole-landscape-scale losses of freshwater wildlife from protected areas; places that most would regard as ‘sustainably’ managed.  Huge areas of wetland have been lost, and that which remains, (despite considerable formal conservation protection), is mostly degraded and polluted.
We are in a perilous situation; a knife edge of numerous extinctions of freshwater species. As the Climate Change Committee calls for urgent action on freshwater habitats, we need bold change that will really make a difference for life in our rivers, streams, lakes, ponds and wetlands.
Yet we are failing to look problems squarely in the eye, often ignoring the evidence of what does, and doesn’t work. The science for example tells us that we can’t significantly mitigate freshwater pollution by use of narrow buffers and interception ponds, and we know that minor habitat alterations in polluted rivers won’t allow species to thrive.
It’s clear a ‘more of the same’ approach is not going to be sufficient. As our knowledge of how to protect freshwater biodiversity grows, there is increasing recognition that reversing the decline is possible, but only with big changes.
What does this look like? We need to farm back from rivers, lakes and ponds so that these habitats are protected. Where possible river floodplains must be given back to, and re-connected with, rivers. Within these wider wetland corridors, we need to undertake science-informed restoration, focusing on the whole spectrum of freshwater habitats, with a strong emphasis on use of natural processes and re-wilding. This means natural flows, physical processes, and clean water too. Freshwater wildlife can’t flourish where water is polluted.
In short, the future needs to be one of much bigger, and better-connected aquatic landscapes with networks of freshwater habitats that are wilder, wetter and cleaner.
This is an exciting yet simple way forward, and one which we must take if we want our wetlands to be absorbing carbon, harbouring wildlife and giving pleasure to so many people. Our measures of success are equally straightforward: we will know we are succeeding when we see landscapes that are rich in freshwater life, with sensitive species expanding.
We invite you all to join us in creating this future where life in freshwater is flourishing, not failing.
 Williams et al. 2020. 'Nature based measures increase freshwater biodiversity in agricultural catchments'. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/...
Dr Stewart Clarke is National Specialist - Freshwater Catchments and Estuaries at the National Trust. Dr Jeremy Biggs is co-founder and Director of the Freshwater Habitats Trust. Professor Carl Sayer is a Professor in Geography at UCL.
The opinions expressed in this blog are the author's and not necessarily those of the wider Link membership.
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