From source to sea

Blakeney Point Board Walk

Water is essential to us in our role in caring for and promoting the importance of nature and heritage – every one of our sites depends upon, and interacts with water in some way. In our report, From Source to Sea, we look at what water means to us, and what we need to do to conserve it.

An amazing 43 per cent of the land in England and Wales drains to the boundary of National Trust owned land. We therefore have a responsibility to maintain and enhance the water environment.  

Yet, the health of the water environment is at threat, which brings many challenges. These include problems of water shortages, pollution and flooding.

Working with natural processes

The way that land and water is managed in one place can have a much wider impact elsewhere. As a nation we:

  • drained wetlands for agriculture and development, and changed the flow of many water courses
  • drain water off roofs, paths, streets and land as quickly as possible, increasing the risk of flooding to people and property downstream
  • the UK take huge quantities of water from the environment, much of which we then waste, damaging wildlife and habitats in the process and wasting energy required for water treatment
  • we allow pollutants to enter our water system, which we then have to treat to make the water safe to drink
  • we have introduced new, non-native species which have become invasive, threatening our native freshwater wildlife and disrupting natural systems

A new approach is needed which works with natural processes to achieve a sustainable future for our precious water resources. It is essential to plan the use of water on a catchment scale, minimising environmental damage and ensuring the efficient and fair use of our limited water.

Water for wildlife and people

Conserving nature, for the benefit of everyone, is at the heart of our work. We have a particularly important role to play in the conservation of freshwater habitats.

We are also responsible for a range of rare species which either live in or around freshwater. These include otters, water voles, wetland birds, amphibians like the great crested newt, fish such as the vendace and char, a wide range of invertebrates, and plants such as stoneworts.

We promote access to our waters for recreation wherever possible, whether it is through fishing, canoeing, sailing or enjoying an inspiring walk beside one of the streams, rivers and lakes. A healthy and cleanwater environment is essential to allow the public to enjoy these experiences and we are committed to protecting the quality of our water-based recreation.

Water shortage

It’s easy to think the UK has a plentiful supply of water, but in many areas rivers and wetlands are drying up. The South East of England has less water available per head than Sudan.

Shortage of water has serious impacts for the special places of historic interest and natural beauty in our care. Fish, wetland birds and other wildlife struggle to survive when rivers and streams dry up or run low. Sources of food and breeding sites are lost and fish die through lack of oxygen.

Flood management

Flooding is predicted to become more frequent and more intense as a result of climate change, bringing home the need to adapt. Unless a new, more sustainable approach is adopted, flood risk management will require more and more expensive hard defences.

More sensitive management of our rivers and their catchments can actually help reduce the risk of flooding. We are advocating making more space for water.

Every parcel of land can play a part in absorbing and storing water. A recent evidence-based review commissioned by the National Trust concluded that, for small river catchments (typical of 97 per cent of England and Wales), land management has a significant impact upon runoff and can be used as part of an integrated approach to flood management and defence.

There is still much to be done

  • the source of over 40 per cent of recorded pollution incidents is never identified
  • more than 50 per cent of public water requires treatment to control pollution from agriculture
  • due to improper connections, the wastewater from 1.3 million properties goes straight into rivers rather than the sewage system

We advocate improving water quality at source, through land management at a catchment scale. This approach reduces the need for expensive and energy-intensive water treatment. It also delivers a range of other environmental and social benefits including an improved habitat for wildlife, enhanced landscapes, and mitigation of climate change through carbon storage within soils.

To get the bigger picture, download our 'From Source To Sea' report.