Our Members Day at Longstock on the Leckford Estate on 8 June was a chance to celebrate all that makes the chalk streams such special places, learn a little more about the environment and have some fun. We were blessed with a perfect day. There was a casting competition, a casting clinic and fly-tying demonstrations, as well as fishing on the Longstock lakes, for the fishermen. And guided riverside walks, an introduction to river fly life and an opportunity to visit the stunning Leckford Estate Water Gardens for those interested in the natural beauty of the Middle Test valley in early June. We all came together in the middle of the day for a magnificent Hog Roast lunch provided by the Leckford Estate keepers. The day seemed to be thoroughly enjoyed by all who came. It was also a good opportunity for the Association to invite as our guests representatives of organisations with which we work closely. It is the first time the Association has run such an event. We will definitely aim to do something similar next summer.
Our next membership event will be at Sparsholt on Friday 26 October. The format will be a series of talks and presentations in the morning on subjects of interest to our members, followed by lunch and a river visit in the afternoon.
This time last year low river flows following a dry winter were a major concern. This will hopefully not be the case this year. We have had a wet Winter and Spring – rainfall in the Test, Itchen and Meon catchments was about 115% of the Long Term Average over the six months from November to April, with March and April being notably wet. River flows were all above normal or notably high at the end of May, and with groundwater levels above normal too there should be no shortage of water in the rivers this summer. Levels are beginning to drop, but with the aquifers full there should be no cause for concern.
The Association, working closely with like-minded organisations like the Wild Trout Trust, has prompted a change of heart from the Environment Agency on the swingeing increases they were planning to introduce for what they charge river owners to permit river restoration and maintenance projects. We made a strong case that by charging hundreds if not thousands of pounds for a licence to undertake projects to improve the environmental condition of the river and riverbank, they were penalising the very people they should be encouraging to undertake this essential work, with no obvious added benefit. The Environment Agency published the response to the consultation exercise in April. They accepted that the increased charges risked being counter-productive and introduced a new category of permit under which the price of a licence for work of environmental value remained unchanged from the past. This change of heart will hopefully save some of our members hundreds, perhaps thousands, of pounds when undertaking river restoration and maintenance projects in the future. A small demonstration of how the Association can help our members in practical ways.
There are reasons to be optimistic about future river flows. We have been working hard with like-minded organisations to support the efforts of the Environment Agency to restrict future abstraction of water from the Hampshire chalkstreams for public water consumption to more sustainable levels. We can report success! At a Public Inquiry in March, Southern Water agreed to all the changes to their abstraction licences proposed by the Environment Agency. This is a complicated issue and hard to summarise succinctly, but, in essence, the Inquiry outcome means that Southern Water will not be able to abstract more water from the rivers than they have in the past – and less than they have hitherto been licensed to. With the number of water customers growing, this means they are now required to develop the alternative water sources required to meet demand. In turn, this means that they are committed over the next ten years to investing in these alternative sources, the main ones being a new reservoir, a desalination plant and increased use of grey water by their industrial customers. They will also be working on demand reduction initiatives and doing more to fix leaks in the system. The Association cannot claim all the credit for the Inquiry outcome, but we contributed to it by consistently and doggedly lobbying alongside our partners – for the best part of eight years. Partnerships matter. Patience helps! Very little can be achieved when it comes to the long-term health of the chalkstreams without working closely with others on long-term goals.
Something of real concern to many of our members is poor water quality – which directly impacts on the number and range of invertebrates living in the chalkstreams. Where have all the river flies gone? is an often-heard refrain. The Association has been busy on this issue. We have trained a significant number of invertebrate monitors to collect the data we need on river fly numbers. We have arranged for the collection and expert analysis of invertebrate samples in the Test, Itchen and Meon to establish clear and scientifically robust base-lines and have just received the data. It is available for our members to peruse in the Members Archive section of this website. Wessex Chalk Streams and Rivers Trust (WCSRT) will use some of the data to produce a Catchment Study for the Meon which we will distribute to our membership later this year. WCSRT produced something similar on the Test and Itchen for our members in 2016.
We have worked with others in the past to call successfully for new phosphate discharge regulations from watercress farms which have now been implemented and are being complied with. We are lobbying hard with others to stop one of the watercress companies being permitted to send harmful chemicals used to clean their washing and packing plants into the headwaters of the Itchen. We have also worked with others on projects to prevent excessive levels of sediment getting into the rivers – we know that excessive nutrient (including phosphate) and sediment levels are the two main culprits. And the many river restoration projects that our members are carrying out create the river habitat invertebrates need to thrive.
There is much more to do to resolve all the problems that have led to a reduction over time in river fly numbers. But we have made a start. We will continue to work closely with others to achieve progress – Salmon and Trout Conservation UK have led the way on the Hampshire chalkstreams and they will remain our key partner in this area.