Dr Tony Whitbread
I've worked at Sussex Wildlife Trust since 1991. In all that time we've grappled with improving the state of our wetland species and the freshwater environments they depend on. High quality rivers and aquifers - like the vast chalk block which makes up the South Downs - benefit people and wildlife alike. The cleaner the water, the less treatment it needs to be potable; the better the fish stocks it supports; the safer are the coastal waters to bathe in and to act as important nurseries for a range of commercially valuable marine and freshwater fish species.
There's no getting away from the fact that by the 1960s we had 'dead' rivers in Sussex and across the UK. River systems were biologically dysfunctional, largely a result of contamination with industrial and domestic waste, agricultural chemicals washed in from farmland, habitat loss and alteration - including canalisation and flood defence structures. Otters - the iconic top of the wetland food chain - declined and disappeared from Sussex over a couple of decades.
Domestic legislation has done much towards cleaning up the dire state of our rivers and improve water quality. But it’s been an uphill struggle to get public policy to adopt the notion that we need to restore the health of our rivers, lakes and underground aquifers. Then, as we entered the new Milllenium, along came the EU Water Framework Directive (WFD; 2000/60/EC), described by the Environment Agency as “… a comprehensive river basin management planning system to help protect and improve the ecological health of our rivers, lakes, estuaries and coastal and groundwaters … underpinned by the use of environmental standards to help assess risks to the ecological quality of the water environment and to identify the scale of improvements that would be needed to bring waters under pressure back into a good condition”. This boils down to a significant obligation: to get our water environment into a fit state for people and wildlife. And there’s a defined timetable, too. All EU waters must achieve their ‘good ecological status’ standards no later than 2027.
There’s no doubt that achieving the WFD objectives is going to be challenging. So far it’s generated tighter legislation to prevent water pollution or abstracting more than the systems can tolerate; it’s removed a range of chemicals and nutrients found in common household products which damage the water environment; it’s banned the sale of invasive non-native aquatic plants. Above all, the WFD process has forced the UK public authorities to evaluate and monitor the actual state of our rivers and waterbodies according to agreed standards.
What does this mean for us and for Sussex wildlife? We strongly advocate that to be effective nature conservation needs a ‘landscape scale’ approach. WFD implementation is based largely on river catchments. River catchments are landscape scale, so that’s a neat fit. A large scale, holistic, ecosystem approach to restoring our water environment to ‘good ecological status’. That should make it easier for otters to recolonise Sussex!