Take the chalk streams of England, for example. These fragile river systems meander quietly through rolling countryside before disappearing into the sea.
Beloved by anglers throughout the ages, Chalk Streams are fascinating river systems where everything grows in abundance. Fed by bubbling springs, they have their own ecosystem, so unique and biologically productive that experts have come to call them the country’s rainforests.
There are only about 200 real chalk streams in the world, 160 of which are in England and a few in France.
There is something essentially ‘summer’ about the clear, snapping waters of the chalk streams. Soft green banks winding through quiet fields evoke memories of village greens, cricket grounds, long balmy days with the clink of china crockery and cream teas.
The community of life that thrives in these countryside gems has been the subject of much prose, most notably in Simon Cooper’s Charming Life of a Chalkstream.
I have always been hypnotized by these magical waters. Rides by their side with our rescue dog, Duke, are punctuated by running and splashing in the shallows, biting the water and cooling off in it. As he plays, I’m always on the lookout for a surprise: a wild trout sheltering under a bridge, a heron staring motionless at the passing water; the vibrating lightning of a kingfisher.
Water voles return to the Highlands after 20 years apart
The chalk streams have long been home to Britain’s fastest declining wild mammal: the water vole. Endearing brown furry creatures that leap into water with a “plop” before disappearing, the extent of their decline has been staggering.
In the Iron Age, it is believed that there were around 6.7 billion. Over the past 40 years in Britain, their numbers have fallen by 90%, a state of decline comparable to that of the East African black rhino.
During my childhood in the 1970s they thrived along the canals and rivers of my native Bedfordshire. I heard them more often than I noticed them – dropping into the water with liquid aplomb, then only a chain of bubbles to betray their presence. If I sat quietly enough, I would occasionally catch a glimpse of their comings and goings from a burrow nestled on the edge of the river, just off the waterline.
They were insignificant at the time. Today, the water vole is one of Britain’s most endangered creatures. Although I’ve spent countless days beside rivers and swampy reedbeds — areas that should be teeming with water voles — I haven’t seen one in over two decades.
Confined to the riparian fringe where farmland meets water, agricultural intensification has made the wider countryside inhospitable to these once ubiquitous mammals.
The decline of their chalky habitats and the destruction of riparian sanctuaries hastened their demise. The removal of bank cover stripped much of their habitat, overwhelming them. As the banks of the rivers also became unwelcoming, the water voles disappeared.
A classic illustration of the problem is found in Kent on sections of the Medway, where intensive farming with arable crops comes down to the river. The edge is beaten and cleared, and as the river rises, the banks break away, clogging the river with silt. As the bank crumbles, the vole house also crumbles. This same intensive agriculture is responsible for chemical runoff, adding pollution to the list of problems facing our riparian “rainforests”.
Yet the final nail in the water vole’s coffin came from an alien intruder in the form of the American mink.
The Legacy of Fur Farming
The mink that currently patrol British waterways were originally imported from America to be bred for fur in the 1920s. They were first confirmed to breed in the wild in 1956. In December 1967, wild mink were present in over half the counties of England and Wales, and much of the lowlands of Scotland, taking advantage of the ecological vacuum left by the disappearance of the otter.
The Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust describes it as a “widespread modern misconception” that in Britain the American mink in the wild comes from mass releases from fur farms by rights activists animals. Escapes and possibly deliberate releases by fur farmers occurred decades before the industry was the subject of public protest. Fortunately, farming mink for fur is now banned in Britain. But the legacy of this industry lives on.
Mink are successful and opportunistic predators with a voracious appetite, especially for water voles.
Today mink have been recorded in every mainland county of Scotland and England, including the colonization of some of the many islands off Scotland – a very real threat to seabird colonies in Scotland. international importance.
Overall, the future looks bleak for the water vole.
Fortunately, there is growing interest in restoring chalk streams to their former glory and water voles with them.
Efforts are underway to support the remaining water vole populations with the help of nature-friendly farmers. Reintroductions have taken place on rivers across the country, with hundreds being released at one of my favorite haunts, Titchfield Haven in Hampshire.
Water Day on March 22 will promote the sustainable management of freshwater resources – and what better indicator of the health of our rivers than the condition of chalk streams.
For my part, I hope we succeed in restoring the chalk streams and our wonderful river systems, and bringing back the much-loved wildlife that should be an integral part of these special places.
In many ways, the future of our natural environment and solving the growing biodiversity crisis depends on it, as does the future of our native water voles.
Philip Lymbery is Managing Director of Compassion in Farming International, United Nations Food Systems Champion and author of Farmageddon: The True Cost of Cheap Meat and Dead Zone: Where the Wild Things Were. He’s on Twitter @philip_ciwf