‘Cambridge’s chalk streams are damaged – we have to give them help’
Two days of discussions and talks about chalk streams were held in Cambridge, shedding invaluable light on how these precious ecosystems work and what can be done to ensure their survival.
England has 85 per cent of the world’s 220 chalk streams and, as organiser Mark Wormald, of Pembroke College, noted: “No one is making any more.”
Scientists, conservationists, politicians, wildlife experts, anglers and activists including Feargal Sharkey contributed to the interdisciplinary conference, which showcased the ecology of chalk streams, appraised the historical interference in them, identified the damage being caused and considered possible ways to preserve them.
The formation of chalk streams was outlined on the Thursday (March 30). Session one, titled ‘The Crisis’ was chaired by Chris Smith, master of Pembroke College, chair of the Environment Agency, and Cambridge Water’s independent customer panel chairman – an interesting juxtaposition of roles – who hosted the session featuring speakers Dr Wormald, Adam Nicolson and Catherine Sayer.
The chalk streams, the audience was informed, were formed when the remains of innumerable tiny organisms accumulated to create a lithological bed of minerally rich calcium carbonate – a sedimentary monument to marine deaths 60 million years ago. Groundwater percolates through this soft basement and forms aquifers, which issue as springs when sufficient pressure has built up.
Session 2, ‘Nature Live’, chaired by Nick Measham, CEO of Salmon & Trout Conservation, looked at the role of fish. Session 3, ‘Nature and Culture’ – chaired by Ali Morse, water policy manager at The Wildlife Trusts and chair of the Blueprint for Water Group – examined the culture and nature of chalk streams, and the fourth and final session of the day, chaired by Ashley Smith of Windrush Against Sewage Pollution (WASP), presented case studies from Yorkshire, Cambridgeshire and Avon.
The first session on Friday asked: ‘Watermeadows: victims or saviours?’. Dame Fiona Reynolds, master of Emmanuel College and former director general of the National Trust, chaired. The rights of nature was the theme for the late morning, with director of the Wild Trout Trust, Shaun Leonard, chairing.
The first speaker on Friday afternoon was Pippa Heylings, a district councillor who is the Liberal Democrats’ Parliamentary candidate for South Cambridgeshire at the next General Election. After reading a poem about housemartins, Cllr Heylings noted that Ecuador’s constitution is the only one in the world to declare water as a human right. Closer to home, she took issue with the planning system, which lists water supplies as the last issue of all.
“How do we get water further up the agenda?” she asked, adding that it is unhelpful that development plans don’t stipulate whether there is sufficient water to supply new housing projects. She also took issue with the state of water pipes.
“The whole investment model since privatisation means we still have Victorian sewage works and now it’s too expensive to fix,” she said, concluding that she supports safe bathing designations.
The next speaker was conservationist Charles Rangeley-Wilson, who chairs the Chalk River Restoration Group.
“Chalk streams flow through the most urbanised, industrialised and agriculturised parts of the UK,” he said. “They are the least capable of self-repair, so what you do to them stays done.”
Calling for “higher protection status for chalk stream”, he said: “Where abstraction is 15 per cent of recharge levels, children can play in the water. Where abstraction is 40 per cent, it’s bone dry.” Does anyone know what the abstraction levels are for Coldham’s Brook?
“Raw sewage discharges have troubled us for some time and it’s time they ended,” Charles told the audience of about 60 people in the David Attenborough conference room. “How long would it take chalk streams to recover? We thought it would take 10 years for the aquifers to fully recharge since the modifications, which began with water mills, and flash locks, and saw rivers straightened and ditched, and dredging – every chalk stream in England has been dredged... It will take centuries for them to recover. We have physically damaged these rivers to such a degree that we have to give them a helping hand.”
Stewart Clarke, the national specialist for freshwater and catchments with the National Trust, was next to the podium.
The region, he said, is suffering because the fens were drained – “500 square miles of fenland was removed and now we’re talking about a lack of water. One of the big problems is agricultural run-off.”
The National Trust has 25 hectares of private land to use to identify solutions, and the solutions include silt traps for the run-off. Current restoration efforts, said Stewart, don’t go far enough because in their original state, chalk streams had multiple channels.
“If you dig through the flood plains you see that these rivers were very different before the impact of the water mills,” he said.
Stewart listed three conditions to return chalk streams to their pristine state – “a holistic approach, involving the whole landscape not just the river channel, and making room for our river corridors because they’re not being used at the moment”.
The Q&A saw Cllr Heylings being quizzed on the unprecedented growth taking place in the Cambridge region. Local people feel that their needs are being sacrificed for the ambitions of developers. Did Cllr Heylings agree?
She said: “We can’t deal with climate change without dealing with infrastructure. We asked planners: ‘After Covid, haven’t working patterns changed?’. And the evidence that came back that during Covid, growth doubled in our area – not in hospitality or retail, but in life sciences. We have already reached the 2021 projection for growth in jobs. We need to come together, sit down and ask how do we deal with it in a way that puts nature and the environment high on the agenda.”
Audience member Clara Todd, a Cambridge-based researcher and consultant in regenerative economics, said of the conference: “It was brilliant to hear so many knowledgeable and passionate voices talking about the chalk streams they know and love, truly a coalition of caring for the fish and the water they swim in.”
One event during the conference – ‘Owned by Everyone? Chalk Streams in Culture and Crisis’ on Thursday evening – was open to all and formed part of the Cambridge Festival. It including contributions from the naturalist and writer Dr Amy-Jane Beer, poet Alice Willitts and writer, activist and filmmaker James Murray-White and novelist David Profumo, among others.
James Murray-White, a Cambridge-based filmmaker and conservationist who took part in the conference, said the events over the two days were “a fantastic coming together of river users, ecologists, fisher people, academics, writers, activists organised by Mark Warmold”.
He added: “There is an acceptance that politics and in particular the greed demonstrated by the privatisation of water has gone completely wrong and it’s time for everyone to step up on a cultural level, on an activist level, and that’s what this conference was really doing.
“It was really heartwarming to be in a space with a lot of my heroes – Amy-Jane Beer, Paul Powlesland, Charles Rangeley-Wilson, Feargal Sharkey to name a few.
“We know the issues of overdevelopment and resource starvation here in Cambridge and our politicians are failing us. They have been too close to the water authorities and nothing has been achieved.”
Dr Wormald concluded: “The whole two days were wonderful, and a great sense of unity and connections, with each other and chalk streams, built over all eight sessions.”