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Pulling the plug on England’s rivers

Friday 04 September 2009

Our countryside commentator John Sheard, a lifelong fisherman and waterways lover , reacts with alarm to allegations that the Government’s house-building programme, allied to massive population growth, is sentencing some of our iconic rivers to a slow and lingering death – including the Ribble in the Yorkshire Dales.

IT WAS announced this week that, for the first time, Britain’s population had topped the 60 million mark. This figure stirred up some controversy, with critics claiming that much of the increase is down to immigration, but an absolute storm blew up later when experts said that figure could pass 70 million in 25 years time.

The Government, of course, denies both these allegations and it its not the duty of this column to act as referee in political punch-ups: our subject is the environment and country life in general, with a local focus on what is going on outdoors in the Yorkshire Dales. But another report made public during the week filled me with alarm.

poWer lines
image courtesy of WWF

It came from the internationally respected Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF) and it contained a bitter attack on the Government’s housing policy because of a side-effect which no-one in Westminster or Whitehall seems to have noticed: huge building projects are sentencing some of our most beautiful rivers to death by five millions dishwashers.

The Government dreams of building five million new homes by 2020, admittedly many of them in the South East, but no-one seems to have worked out where the water to supply all those dishwashers, washing machines, baths, showers and loos will come from.

The answer, of course, is from our rivers and, in the South East at least, some are already running dry. But here is Yorkshire, despite a summer of heavy rains, we face similar problems and one on the rivers named by the WWF as being at special risk is the Ribble, which rises in the heart of the Yorkshire Dales national park.

Because population growth is greatest in the South East, the WWF report concentrates on some of the prettiest rivers in the land, the Test and the Itchen. These are world-famous trout streams because they rise in the chalk which underpins the South Downs to the White Cliffs of Dover.

Water bubbling through the chalk has a very high alkaline content, which allows marine insects to thrive, thus providing a well-stocked larder for hungry trout. The result is that you have to be a very rich man indeed to fish these two rivers – yet these and several other chalk streams are drying out. The reason, according to the WWF: excessive water extraction to feed all the new homes being built with Government backing.

Chalk streams, however, are not unique to the South East. There is a layer of chalk under a swathe of the East Riding/North Yorkshire border running out to Flamborough Head and that provides some fine fly fishing too. When I was an impecunious freelance reporter in York in the 1960s, I dreamed of one day fishing Driffield Beck but – if I remember correctly – the subs to join the club would have set me back almost three months pay!

huge building projects are sentencing some of our most beautiful rivers to death

There has been massive housing development in the Driffield-Beverley area and there have been angry protests about water extraction in the River Derwent valley for at least 20 years. There was one summer when Driffield Beck almost ran dry and the local anglers blamed, not the weather, but nearby housing developments. Recent wet, rainy summers have saved the beck, I am glad to report.

But it is not only chalk streams that are under threat. The limestone rivers of the Yorkshire Dales also have high alkaline registers to support plump brown trout and the west flowing rivers also support salmon and sea trout which run up from the Irish Sea. To me as a fisherman, these rivers are tremendously important. As part of our stupendous landscape, they are national jewels that must be protected.

There is a bitter battle of wills going on at present between Whitehall and Craven District Council over Government demands to build more new houses in the western Yorkshire Dales, plans which are angrily opposed by the majority of local residents. Some of those houses at to be in the Settle area and where will their water come from? The Ribble, of course, one of the rivers on the WWF danger list.

If the population of this land is to reach 70 million by the middle of the century, we will not just have a Mediterranean climate – as the climate change pundits predict – but we could well become a desert as our rivers run dry.

There is one glimmer of hope however. Another report issued this week claims that because the Government has dithered for 12 years about ordering new nuclear power stations, the country will face electricity blackouts in eight to ten years. So there will be no power to run those washing machines and dishwashers. Could one Government blunder neutralise another? Fingers crossed.

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