Wetlands offer a wide range of exceptional habitats for flora and fauna, and give constant delight for all the people ready to appreciate them. Think of rivers, ponds, marshes, bogs, reedbeds, fens, canals, wet woodland, wet grassland and wet heathland. Think of Kingfishers, Mute Swans, Emperor dragonflies, mayflies, Sticklebacks, Alder trees, Water Crowfoot, lilies and rushes. Think of the Bittern. Think of the Otters and Water Voles.
There is still a lot of wetland in lowland England, but nothing like so much as there used to be, and That's not a reference to the position before the extensive drainage schemes of the 17th and 18th centuries.
To give one example, in 1945 there were 470,000 ponds in this part of Britain, and by 1998 that had shrunk to 243,000 mainly because in a period of agricultural change, with intensive farming becoming the dominant method, ponds were perceived as either in the way, or an unnecessary luxury.
Now the good news - from 1990 to 1998 there were 37,000 ponds created (ignoring the multitude in gardens) to outscore the 24,000 which disappeared, an equation which needs to be repeated every year for the next 20 years at least.
Another example is reedbeds, one of our natural resources which can store water from rivers and rain, clean water from industry, and help control floods. Yet despite this unarguable value, three-quarters of the reedbeds in Britain have disappeared since 1945, partly because they require consistent management.
Some reedbeds are now being regenerated or created, as at Needingworth Quarry in Cambridgeshire, which should cover 700 hectares eventually. This will greatly benefit such threatened species as the Bittern (Botaurus stellaris). (The issue of invariably making worked-out quarries and sandpits environmentally friendly by using water, rather than occasionally leaving them dry, is dealt with under Sandpits in the Heathland section of this website.)
Rivers have also suffered, though they are coming back thanks to the efforts of the Environment Agency in particular. An Act of 1388 stated there was to be no pollution of water, yet now 35 per cent of our rivers are not of good quality chemically and 29 per cent are not of good quality biologically. Most of the remainder are 'fair' but respectively six per cent and four per cent are poor.
Additionally, 53 per cent have high concentrations of phosphate and 29 per cent have high concentrations of nitrate, as a result of such elements as agricultural run-off and sewage treatment works. Neither of these inputs is helpful to the environment and it is a moot point whether either is unavoidable.
The only consolation is that the situation is better than it was in 1990 and a lot better than in the 1970s, with the principle of 'the polluter pays' bearing fruit to stop malicious or accidental pollution by industry or agriculture. Major discharges of diesel or oil, notably from engines or machinery, can have a terrible effect on the denizens of wetlands, as the image below indicates. The diesel shown going into the river was a minor spillage, though in truth any amount of this noxious liquid entering a living habitat represents a disaster. The Mute Swan (Cygnus olor) shown below, and his mate, took months to recover after being soaked by some of thousands of litres of diesel carelessly discharged from a bus garage in Surrey in 1991.
Systematic abstraction of potable water from rivers is one pressure placed upon them and it is just as well that the Environment Agency controls these strictly. Shortage of rainfall, with or without global warming, is likely to be one of greatest threats to habitats - and, for what it's worth, comfortable living for people - over the next couple of decades and beyond.
Southern England is one of the driest areas on earth when fresh water availability is balanced against population and demand, but minimal effort seems to be made to reduce use of this precious raw material or generate and store new supplies. Despite this, the Government's East of England and South-East England Plans respectively put forward figures for homes to be built in these areas by 2026 as 478,000 and 640,000. These Plans were revoked in 2013, but the theory that more and more houses need building still has currency. Indeed, at the end of 2012 one Government minister, suffering from the wilful if not terminal ignorance of the environment that pervades the House of Commons, tried to argue that the south-east is not heavily developed, and that building on another 2-3 per cent of the land in England would solve what is claimed to be a housing problem.
If there is a problem there, it is partly the result of incompetent, irresponsible and unsustainable policies by successive Governments. Either way, more and more construction would create other problems, as anybody with their brain in the right place rather than in their boots knows full well. For our water resources and environment, such a level of construction is likely to be disastrous, and disastrous in some places well before the new homes are occupied. In one sandpit in Surrey 1.6 million gallons of water are required daily to pump sand. There are 26 shortlisted Potential Mineral Zones in Surrey alone, identified to fulfil Government quota requirements to enable construction in the next decade. Any or all of the areas finally chosen for extraction of minerals might require similar amounts of water, with immense consequences for water tables which are already under pressure. Moreover, in London, daily water consumption per capita rose from 140 litres daily in 1980 to 162 litres in 2009, helped no doubt by water-hungry appliances and notions about everyone needing, rather than just wanting, a bath or two showers a day.
In 2011/12 pipes around London leaked 665 million litres a day, in a UK total of 1,226 billion litres. The latter figure is enough to fill Lake Windermere four times a year. A plan to build a desalination plant was refused by the Mayor on the grounds of its being a poor use of fuel/carbon, then accepted by Government in 2007. (Theories about such developments being wasteful in certain respects have some force, but the threats to our wild, wet habitats from abstraction in one form or another give desalination plants a greater relevance and justification, whatever their effects elsewhere.)
More development also means more flash flooding, since rainfall enters watercourses much faster when falling on tarmac and concrete than when falling on pasture or woodland. Such floods can be disastrous for breeding water birds and for some invertebrates and flora. They are not that good for people either but they at least have a choice - the vast majority are under no obligation to reside in a floodplain.
Not that those in authority do anything to help the belief that floodplain development is irresponsible folly. Quite the contrary. Despite continuous pressure against such development by its own experts, the Environment Agency, Governments blunder blindly on. In 2010, 9,254 new homes were built on floodplains. In 2011 developers submitted more than 3,000 separate plans to build 27,923 houses in areas prone to flooding, and on the so-called Thames Gateway around 90 per cent of the massive development (now seemingly on hold) was set to be constructed on floodplain, albeit one which is unlikely to damage anyone further downstream whatever happens on the site itself.
There is invariably plenty of mendacious reference to providing 'proper protection' for home owners in new developments, plus the usual bland remarks about zero-carbon construction. But predictably there is no mention of proper protection for the environment. No mention of the additional hard surfaces and faster run-off not just from the new homes but from the infrastructure accompanying them, notably roads. No mention of the potential, when developing inland floodplains with or without flood defences, for increasing the vulnerability of existing properties further downstream. Why bother looking when you can impersonate an ostrich?
Frankly, insurance companies which are prepared to cover such properties at little more than the normal rate are either stupid, irresponsible or both. If they put up the premiums for everybody when floods ruin homes, you can add injustice to the list.
All in all, prospects for our wetlands are nothing like so rosy as they should be, and it will be appalling if human inefficiency, wastage and misjudgement give our flora and fauna yet another kick in the pants.
Any inquiries - please e-mail me at Nature Conservation Imaging.
Images © Jeremy Early. All rights reserved.
In 2013 I published My Side of the Fence - the Natural History of a Surrey Garden. Details may be found, and orders placed, via this hyperlink My Side of the Fence. In November 2015 Surrey Wildlife Trust published the atlas Soldierflies, their allies and Conopidae of Surrey, jointly written by David Baldock and me. Details are on this web page: Atlas.