This article first appeared in the Autumn 2023 edition of Birdwatching Magazine
The southeast of this country has 85% of the world’s chalk streams… a higher percentage of special habitat than Peru has cloud forest and rarer than Madagascar’s dry forest. Were it located in some third world country, whose inhabitants were despoiling it in order to survive we would be up in arms. We would be ranting on about how thoughtlessly other nations are destroying precious nature and how selfish their moguls and oligarchs are, turning a buck polluting the Amazon or letting mercury run off into the Orinoco.
Meanwhile, not one… I repeat not ONE of these gems is pristine; every single one of them has been damaged but thoughtlessness, selfishness or idiocy. A staggering 75% are in real trouble. Some are degraded by agricultural run-off that promotes overgrowth of vegetation. Others have lost their precious weed-beds from being straightened or otherwise ‘improved’. Yet others are besmirched by this country’s shameful water companies who use profits to pay dividends and fat-cat bonuses, rather than put back every penny into the infrastructural improvements all of us agree is needed.
Its not only what is being deliberately or accidently put in that is an issue… it’s also about what is taken out. Obviously, that’s water. Agriculture takes direct and water companies take it for household and other uses. An unacceptable third of water extracted from rivers is wasted! Bad enough taking it at all, but to then waste it is nothing short of disgraceful!
What a great idea it was back a generation or so ago when the government sold off public assets to the city. Trains, power, water and even the mail was going to be run so much better by private capital. Did no-one manage the two plus two equals four sum? Privatising means running things for profit, not the greater good. So we have had decades of profiteering instead of the investment that was needed. When British entrepreneurs got bored, our family silver was sold off to overseas bidders. So, even the profit couldn’t ‘trickle down’ into the pockets of the public.
It all worked out so well that the very party that was so gung-ho back then has been taking railway concessions back into public ownership as they fail to meet even the most basic running standards. Five out of twenty-eight so far!
But big bonuses still prevail over clean water. How can that be? Efficient private capital is running things so well that the profits can be shared out and the bosses rewarded for polluting our rivers as never before with hundreds of thousands of annual dirty water discharges somehow accruing hundreds of thousands of pounds for the perpetrators.
It may not matter too much who delivers your Mother’s Day gift, or whether your train home is subject to delays, but killing unique eco-systems should be seen as a crime against nature. Even if you care not one fig for the fish and frogs, the kingfishers and dragonflies, then surely you care about the infringement of your right to bathe safely in the sea, wild swim in one of our previously great rivers or cast your fly for wild trout. You don’t have to be a fly-fisherman to rue the loss of crystal waters and biodiversity.
This is not about party politics but the politics of greed; it’s not about the nanny state or bureaucratic intervention. Its all about our basic human rights. We all need clean air, clean water and a place for nature and they are right at the top of most people’s wish lists. Save Our Chalk Streams Now!