This article first appeared in the June 2022 edition of Birdwatching magazine
My coastal conurbation has more blue-flagged beaches than anywhere of equivalent size in England, enjoyed in the past by the likes of Charles Dickins and JMW Turner, who said the seascape skies here were the best in Europe. The Covid epidemic made these coasts popular again when day trips were our substitute for the Spanish costas. Despite massive investment last year there were times when the beaches were cordoned off because of raw sewage discharges. Recently the water company has had to compensate us to the tune of millions.
Why is it happening? Because it’s cheaper to pay the fines than it is to spend money on aging and inadequate infrastructure. For too long we have relied on Victorian engineering built at a time when the population was less than half what it is now.
Because of an ill-thought-out government blanket policy, forcing every local authority to allow more house building, regardless of whether its affordable or even needed, our water table is dropping faster than a peregrine on a pigeon. Our local sponge was never up to much, now it is drained dry and we are having to pump in water from elsewhere.
Farmland is giving way to housing schemes without commerce, education, health or leisure facilities – agri-business desserts making way for brick, tarmac and concrete ones. Open space for us or wildlife is heading over the horizon.
When what used to absorb rainfall is paved, the water that used to soak away is shed into storm drains. Subterranean storage tanks used to cope with massive storms… now they overflow in March after the lightest April shower brought forward by climate change. With nowhere else to go it pours into and overwhelms our sewage system. If we don’t want it backing up into our homes, raw sewage has to be discharged into rivers, or, in our case, the sea. Across the UK such discharges happened 40,000 times in 2021!
There is an alternative to polluting discharges or massive underground tanks… wetland!
In Roman times around a quarter of our land was covered in wetlands. In the last 400 years 90% of our wetland has gone. The pace has quickened and our wildlife has been decimated. Over the last few years we have thrilled to the re-introduction or return of many iconic species, three types of egret gone from zero to almost commonplace. Spoonbills breeding and bitterns faring better than for a century. Cranes dancing in water meadows… why? Because, we better manage the dwindling resource we have. Yet, if we return any land to its former glory we don’t have to captive breed birds, they fly in and grab the resources with both talons.
If ever there was a better chance to cure two birds with one stone I’ve not heard of it.
Wildlife needs wetlands. We need wetlands. All it takes to make it happen is to divert a different disaster. Stop paving over the most crowded bits of the country and turn farmland back into wildlife areas that can filter ‘waste’ water. Storm drain water is relatively clean. However, our gutters are still places where combustion engine waste ends up, where human detritus gathers. Simple grills can separate the cigarette butts and crisp packets and wetlands can do the rest – storing water, storing carbon and letting unwanted chemicals settle while naturally building back lost water tables.
Marginal farmland only produces food through subsidies. Give it back to nature and it will give us back sweet water, cleaner air and incidentally help stem our rush toward global warming. We must demand waste-water wetlands!