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Experts urge action to protect and restore small English freshwater habitats

December 3, 2020
Whitchurch Pond. Scientists are increasingly showing the importance of such small water bodies to landscape biodiversity and ecosystem services. Image: Freshwater Habitats Trust

A group of freshwater experts have written to the UK government to call for urgent action to protect England’s small aquatic habitats. They state that the country’s network of ponds, streams, ditches and headwaters – which make up around 80% of England’s freshwaters, and support over 70% of freshwater species – are vital biodiversity hotspots, often providing crucial refuges for rare plants and animals.

However, small freshwater sites are largely ignored by biodiversity monitoring programmes, such as those guided by the EU Water Framework Directive. Linked to this, funding for their protection and restoration is scarce. In short, the authors of the new letter – coordinated by the Freshwater Habitats Trust – argue that there is a critical lack of attention afforded to small freshwaters, and an urgent need to address this blindspot in environmental management and policy.

The open letter is addressed to Dieter Helm, the Independent Chair of the UK government’s Natural Capital Committee, which recently published its final response to the government’s 25 Year Environment Plan. The report explores how the government could address declines in ‘natural assets’ – atmosphere, freshwater, minerals and resources, marine, soils, biota and land – in England over the next quarter century.

The freshwater section of the report identifies small water bodies as a focus of urgent attention. It states that, “The government should develop a baseline and metrics for the condition and extent of smaller waterbodies comparable to those for WFD water bodies. Such an assessment should look to incorporate citizen science to engage communities, and the use of other developing monitoring approaches.”

A number of recent studies have shown that the conservation and restoration of small water bodies can bring about significant environmental benefits. A study by Penny Williams and colleagues published earlier this year found that creating ‘clean water’ pond habitats in farmland can significantly improve landscape biodiversity over relatively short time periods.

A 2018 review by William Riley and colleagues found that small water bodies provide a range of important ecosystem services, such as natural flood control, but are inherently vulnerable to human pressures. A 2016 study by Matthew Hill and colleagues showed that ponds are important ‘stepping stone’ habitats for biodiversity across wide landscapes. And more studies are being published each year, representing a shift in contemporary ecological thought from ‘big is better’ to ‘small is beautiful’ in understanding how freshwater habitats support biodiversity and provide ecosystem services.

In this context, the open letter – signed by 21 prominent UK freshwater researchers – argues that post-Brexit policy change provides an opportunity for the government to address historic shortcomings in the monitoring and protection of small water bodies.

Signatory Dr Jeremy Biggs says, “This could be a win-win solution – for a fraction of what the government and water industry is spending now, we can reverse the inexorable decline of UK freshwater wildlife by focusing on small waters. And post-Brexit changes in legislation give an opportunity to set our own rules to protect freshwater by properly including small waters.”

The letter outlines three key steps for the UK Office for Environmental Protection and other government agencies to address. First, it calls for the implementation of a national monitoring programme for small water bodies which connects with the current river and lake monitoring programmes. Second, it asks policy makers to set specific targets for small waterbody quality and numbers, and integrate these into existing planning and agri-environment policies, such as the Environment Act. Third, it urges the adoption of the Wildlife and Countryside Link recommendations for a funded programme of small water conservation, restoration and creation as part of the next government Spending Review.

In short, the open letter asks the UK government to follow the recommendations of current freshwater research on small water bodies synthesised in the 25 Year Environment Plan report. In doing so, the letter authors argue we can grasp an important opportunity to better monitor, protect and restore vital English ponds, streams, ditches and headwaters in the future.

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