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Freshwater wildlife spotlight


Our freshwater wildlife is in trouble, but we can all be part of the solution says Kathryn Walker from the Freshwater Habitats Trust

What would you classify as a freshwater habitat? 

Freshwater habitats include both flowing and standing waters such as ponds, canals, ditches, flushes, lakes, rivers, springs and streams. 

Why are they important?

Water covers 70 per cent of our planet but only 3 per cent of the world’s water is freshwater, making it incredibly rare. Clean water is a critical pre-requisite if freshwaters are to support the natural range of plants and animals they should.

Small waters are particularly important: our research shows that most freshwater biodiversity lives in small waterbodies. However, in the UK freshwater protection and monitoring is almost completely focussed on large waterbodies such as rivers and lakes.

Why have we been losing freshwater habitats in the UK?

Even moderate pollution degrades freshwaters irrevocably. From headwater streams down to the sea, and from tiny ponds to great lakes, a shockingly large proportion of our freshwaters is damaged by pollution. For people this means dirty polluted water to avoid, not enjoy, but for wildlife it means the loss of species that once thrived. 

What species have been worst affected by the decline?

So many freshwater species are threatened by pollution and habitats loss that lowland English counties have now seen a host of vulnerable species like the shining ram’s-horn snail and water-violet go extinct. The pearl mussels in our northern streams have a life span of 100 years, but are now in danger of extinction because their young can no longer survive. Water voles have significantly declined on the last 50 years. Even among common species, there has been massive loss in the past decade, and, shockingly, the common toad is now on the list of threatened species in the UK.

What can be done to rectify the situation? 

First we need to protect the remaining hot spots for freshwater wildlife – especially the clean waters because the evidence is that, once we mess up ponds, streams and rivers it’s very hard to put them right. It’s also very hard to control pollution – indeed the impact of water pollution can seem overwhelming, but here is one surprisingly simple solution. By making new clean water ponds we can quickly put unpolluted water back into the countryside. In 2008 we launched a 50-year partnership initiative, the Million Ponds Project, to do just this, with the aim of getting back to the million ponds that enriched the British landscape 100 years ago.  

How can people get involved? 

Throughout the year we run a number of volunteer surveys. The Big Spawn Count is a great way for people to help us learn more about the importance of ponds for our native amphibians. The survey runs from January to the end of April and anyone can take part by going to their garden pond, counting the number of spawn clumps and entering the results on-line. 

Following this, we then launch our second survey of the year – the Big Pond Dip. Pond dipping is something that childhood memories are made of. The information you gather will begin to tell us how good garden ponds are for wildlife and what types of pond support the most animal life.