£10 million project to bring UK rivers back to life launched by National Trust as Director-General calls on Government to "act now" on its green Brexit promises
Five of the UK’s most precious rivers will be revived in the latest of a series of major National Trust projects providing much-needed support to the British countryside during ongoing Brexit uncertainty.
The conservation charity announces its most ambitious waterways restoration project in its history, but warns the Government must now put action to its promises to save dwindling UK wildlife as we depart the EU.
Struggling freshwater wildlife and surrounding habitat will receive a major boost in Cumbria, Somerset, Norfolk, Cheshire and North Wales as part of the project led by the conservation charity with the Environment Agency and Natural Resources Wales.
Sharing the stage at Countryfile Live with Environment Secretary Michael Gove, Hilary McGrady, Director-General at the Trust, will cite a groundswell of public support for more work on the ground as she calls on the Government to fast-track its Environment Bill for the sake of future generations.
She welcomes recent pledges by the Government to deliver a farming policy that improves the environment, but will tell Mr Gove that "actions speak louder than words".
"This really is a once-in-a-generation moment – for government and us all - to do something good, for the benefit of everyone across the UK," Ms McGrady will say.
Sixty percent of UK adults say it is “very important” that farmers receive money in return for looking after nature - and 70% support an Environment Act to hold the Government to account, according to a new poll commissioned by the Trust. In addition, 72% say they would definitely or would probably be willing to pay more tax so the government could ensure farmers do not pollute river or lakes.
"There is strength in numbers and it is great news that so many of us are coming together, individuals and organisations across sectors, to call for better practice and deliver benefit for nature," Ms McGrady will say.
"And we need to see the Environment Bill putting protections for nature solidly in statute...we need a new, robust series of measures to ensure that governments in years to come must deliver environmental improvements, and be taken to task if and when they don’t."
The UK's environmental decline "isn't the fault of farmers", Ms McGrady adds.
"For decades they have been squeezed by the supermarkets on price and provided with public funding based on the amount of land they can farm rather than on producing positive outcomes for the environment and for the people."
The conservation charity is already doing its bit trialling new payments approaches for farmers to look after nature in the Yorkshire Dales and North Wales. The Trust is also making rapid progress on its pledge to create 25,000 hectares of priority habitat by 2022.
Ms McGrady will add: "We now want to see the Government commit to putting enough money in the pot for nature friendly farming, not just for the next four years, but for the next ten or twenty.
"With the right support farmers can continue to innovate, becoming more profitable, sustainable and nature-friendly. A better future for the countryside, including our farmers, communities and a healthy and beautiful natural environment, is within our grasp.”
Currently, only 14% England’s river catchments, and 37% of those in Wales, are in good health as intensive farming, pressures from development and the effects of climate change take their toll. The charity will now start reversing this alarming trend across 750 square miles (1,204 km²) of land and more than 600 miles of river under its "Riverlands" project.
The Trust and its partners estimate the project will cost £10m. The charity is hoping to raise £4million through fundraising appeals to support the work.
“Rivers are the lifeblood of our landscapes but many of them – and the wider landscapes that feed into them – are in desperate need of repair,” Ms McGrady will say. “The damage inflicted on these environments has threatened a number of freshwater and wetland species with extinction from Britain – we must not allow this to happen.”
Work on the ground will include habitat restoration work and creating better paths and walking routes to make waterways more accessible for a wider range of people. As well as restoring nature, the Riverlands project‘s long-term aim is to help communities enjoy their rivers more, not only as a home for wildlife but also as a space for health and wellbeing.
The project – which will start later this year – will include better paths and walking routes will also be created across the five catchments as the charity explores all opportunities to make waterways more accessible for a wider range of people.
The Trust will work closely with schools and a wide-range of local community groups to galvanise people who are not currently connected to nature.
The project will be cited as Ms McGrady's "pledge for nature" at Countryfile Live. She will also invite fellow speakers Minette Batters, NFU President, and Mr Gove to make similarly bold pledges.
Ms McGrady says of Riverlands: “Not only will it restore habitats for scores of wildlife, from the rare vendace fish in Derwent Water to otters and water voles, it aims to inspire people to value and care for our rivers. Motivating people to take responsibility and get involved will ensure this work is sustainable for years to come.
“Working together with local communities, the project recognises that when cherished, healthy rivers are important not just environmentally but culturally and socially – they help define places, bring people together and benefit us all.”
Sarah Aubrey, Senior Environment Officer, Natural Resources Wales, said: “This joined-up approach to caring for the environment will boost wildlife including fisheries, help reduce flood risk and improve water quality, reduce peat erosion, improve natural habitats and create new recreation opportunities.”
The work includes helping to slow the flow of water and alleviate flooding in Conwy Valley, North Wales, repairing the banks and habitats of the River Derwent in Cumbria, improving the chalk stream habitats of the Upper Bure in Norfolk, and tackling non-native species in the Bollin, Cheshire.
In addition, the project will help slow water runoff from the uplands of Exmoor using natural flood management methods in the Porlock Vale streams, and reconnect rivers with their floodplains in other areas. More than 400,000 people live within the catchment areas and over 3.6 million live within 10 miles. Initially, nine National Trust properties will be involved in the project.
Riverlands is part of the Trust’s wider objective to restore 25,000 hectares of wildlife-rich habitats by 2025. More than one in ten of the UK’s wildlife species are threatened with extinction, according to the 2016 State of Nature report.
The Trust hope Riverlands will eventually deliver many more river catchment projects across Britain and Northern Ireland.
Riverlands will work to ensure that rivers and catchments are clean, healthy and rich in wildlife. The project will also inspire people to connect with rivers, nature and wildlife, increasing the relevance of rivers and other freshwaters in our lives. It will take place in twelve catchments in England and Wales, with the first phase of work concentrating on five key areas.
The Conwy Valley, North Wales
The overall aim of the project is to improve land and water management whilst also benefiting people and wildlife within the catchment. The project will build on existing blanket bog restoration work which to improve water quality, slow water flow to help reduce flood risk and peat erosion, boost wildlife including fisheries such as salmon and trout, as well as creating new recreation opportunities.
For more information visit: www.nationaltrust.org.uk/projects/upper-conwy-catchment-project
The Derwent, Cumbria
Designated a Special Area of Conservation (EU Habitats and Species Directive), a large proportion of the catchment is designated as being important for species of plants and wildlife, and lies within the Lake District National Park, a World Heritage Site. Historic river modification has led to major flooding in recent years, which has also affected upland and wetland habitats. The project will make improvements to the river structure, reducing flood risk, improving water quality and benefitting wildlife including Atlantic salmon, otter, three species of lamprey and the nationally rare vendace.
The Upper Bure, Norfolk
The river is a chalk stream, an internationally rare and important habitat and its headwaters have been historically modified for land drainage, affecting the water quality. The project will improve the connections between the river, floodplain and surrounding habitats, creating four fish passages, restoring wet woodland and grasslands, and boosting freshwater biodiversity.
The Bollin, Cheshire
Part of the Upper Mersey catchment, the rivers Bollin and Goyt connect a number of National Trust properties on the southern fringe of Manchester. Riverlands will improve access, wildlife habitats and water quality, focusing on securing sustainable farming practices across National Trust and neighbouring farmland. The project will include tackling non-native species such as the Himalayan Balsam, and will benefit wildlife including brown trout, Atlantic salmon and the endangered white clawed crayfish.
Porlock Vale streams, Somerset
The short, steep streams of the Porlock Vale respond rapidly to rainfall events, and pose a flood risk to settlements in the lower catchment. The project will slow the flow, increase infiltration and reconnect the rivers with the floodplain. Building on habitat creation at Holnicote, in-stream improvements will support eels and brook lampreys, while riparian habitat management will support otters, and the resident bat population that forage and breed in the catchment.