Charity expresses ‘concern’ for South West’s vulnerable rivers

Freshwater pearl mussel. Photo, Linda Pitkin/2020VISION

Recent major pollution incidents in the South West show just how vulnerable and fragile our river systems really are, says the Devon Wildlife Trust (DWT).
River Torridge at Halsdon nature reserve

Halsdon nature reserve. Photo, Kevin New

Recent major pollution incidents in the South West show just how vulnerable and fragile our river systems really are, says the Devon Wildlife Trust (DWT).

The Torridge River Restoration Project

The wildlife charity, which is currently embarking on a £700,000 project (the Torridge River Restoration Project) to help farmers clean up the River Torridge and help its wildlife, has expressed alarm over the recent pollution, and says that this is only one of many threats to the wildlife in our rivers.

Lisa Schneidau, DWT’s Northern Devon Nature Improvement Area Manager, said:

“During August 2019 we have already seen a serious pollution incident of the River Mole (a tributary of the Taw in North Devon) with the death of 10,000 fish; and thousands more fish have been killed from an unidentified substance in the River Sheppey in Somerset.”

“These large pollution incidents are happening against a backdrop of many smaller ‘diffuse’ pollution incidents from day-to-day farming practice, such as the loss of soil from maize growing, and run-off from fertilised fields draining into our watercourses.”

Pollution kills river wildlife including fish and invertebrates, and it can take many years for a river to recover, if it can recover at all. Rivers across the country also suffer from invasion by non-native species including Himalayan balsam, which compounds the diffuse pollution problem. North Devon’s rivers, including the River Taw and the River Torridge of Tarka the Otter fame, are currently failing to meet ecological standards under the EU Water Framework Directives, notably because of phosphate pollution from farming.

Freshwater pearl mussels in tank

Freshwater pearl mussels

The River Torridge and River Taw also contain the last southern English populations of freshwater pearl mussel, now critically endangered but once widespread across much of the UK.  Freshwater pearl mussels are one of the longest living invertebrates known and can live for up to 120 years, but they have not successfully bred in north Devon since the 1960s. The presence of brown trout and Atlantic salmon is vital for survival of the mussel, as the fish carry the mussel larvae in the early stages of its lifecycle.

Lisa said, “DWT’s new project on the river Torridge, funded by the Environment Agency through their Water Environment Grant, will be providing bespoke advice and funding to landowners on key parts of the river system, to support the re-creation of river and fish habitat, and prevent pollution and soil loss from farms.

Lisa Schneidau added:

“Sadly, not all landowners or industries pay due attention to the environmental impact of their work. There are strict laws to prevent river pollution, whether it’s pollution from a single source or from ongoing land management.”

“The Environment Agency is the Government body responsible for policing our rivers and prosecuting polluters. However, they have suffered severe financial cuts from Government in recent years. We are concerned that the Environment Agency do not have the resources they need to hold polluters to account.”

We call on the Government to make sure that the Environment Agency is properly supported and that polluters are not allowed to get away with breaking the law
Lisa Schneidau
DWT’s Northern Devon Nature Improvement Area Manager
Restoring the ecological health of the River Torridge

At present just 19% of the Devon’s rivers and watercourses are judged to be of ‘Good Ecological Status.’ This is something Devon Wildlife Trust thinks the new government needs to address urgently if it is to achieve the target of 75% of all rivers being in ‘good condition’ expressed recently (May 2019) in its 'A Green Future: Our 25 Year Plan to Improve the Environment'.   

More on Devon Wildlife Trust’s new project on the River Torridge can be found at:

Torridge River Restoration Project