Looking after our local chalk streams

Several of the world’s most precious chalk streams are found here in the North Wessex Downs Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. Chalk streams are rivers that rise from springs in landscapes with chalk bedrock. This bedrock is in a sponge formation, allowing rainwater to percolate easily down to the underground aquifer or water table. Chalk streams therefore receive little surface runoff. As a result, their flow contains little organic matter and sediment and is generally very clear. The beds of challk streams are generally clean, compacted gravel and flints, which are good spawning areas for fish like brown trout and grayling.

The Environment Agency’s Guideline to Owning a Watercourse explains how residents and landowners who border a river should look after it. See summary below plus important safety issues and specific contact details for our local rivers.

Watercourse Ownership

You normally own a stretch of watercourse that runs on or under your land. If a watercourse runs along the boundary of your land, you normally own from your bank to the centre of the watercourse. The deeds for your property or land will tell you if this is not the case so do check your deeds if you’re not clear about ownership. As a watercourse owner you have riparian rights to use the water for domestic purposes, and to swim, boat and fish (unless fishing rights are sold or leased and the angler has a valid Environment Agency rod licence).

Your responsibility is to:

1.Report an incident to the Environment Agency Incident Hotline

  • report any flooding, blockages, collapsed banks

2. Let the water flow naturally

According to Action for the River Kennet (ARK), a healthy river is not a neat and tidy river. In recent years there has been a shift in what a healthy river looks like.

Did you know the upturned tree plates of trees blown over in storms are where kingfishers nest?

Large woody debris often does not automatically need to be removed.
Large trees are now often deliberately felled into rivers or if they’ve come down naturally and are not posing a flood risk can be secured to create a diverse and more natural habitat.
Mowing right upto the riverbank is not considered good practice and nor is having a compost heap or a pile of grass clippings by the river.

In the majority of cases plants do not need to be cleared from within a river channel but in certain cases you might need to control weed (please seek advice from ARK first): 

The long, flowing Water Crowfoot (Ranunculus) is good for the river habitat, an excellent gauge of health and part of the biodiversity needed for the trout providing shade and shelter. It also helps hold up some flow when river levels drop.  Sometimes it needs to be cut back. Please get advice for your stretch of river. 

The lighter coloured and ‘leafier’ looking Water Cress (Rorippa nasturtium-aquaticam) is a good habitat for trout but can sometimes dominate an area. It grows in silt. As it is an invasive species, the cress needs to be pulled out by hand from the roots (rather than cut) which has the additional benefit of removing some silt at the same time. Advice is usually to remove about a third.

Once weed has been pulled out of the water, EA advice is to leave it on the bank side for a few days to allow the small invertebrates living in it to wriggle back to the river.  (It is also easier to move when some of the water has drained away.)

3. Prevent pollution

  • don’t throw waste water or chemicals into the river
  • don’t allow dogs into the water who have had recent flea treatments
  • don’t position your compost heap near the river as nutrients will leech into the water
  • don’t use herbicides within 1 metre of the top of the bank without permission from the Environment Agency
  • remove litter, animal carcasses, garden waste on banks

4. Protect wildlife

  • do not disturb birds, nests, spawning fish
  • rescue fish in the winterbourne section before it dries up and release them into a continually flowing section of the stream

Safety Issues

Rivers and streams are beautiful to admire and in the summer many local children enjoy playing in the water. There are a couple of safety issues though to bear in mind:

Animal Dung & Sewage

It is advisable that anyone who goes into the water takes appropriate hygiene precautions because when livestock have access to the stream for drinking water and dogs might pee/poo on the banks there is always the risk that their faeces get into the water. There is also the possibility that a dead animal carcass is in the river upstream of you somewhere out of sight.

Another thing that sometimes happens across the country is the discharge of very diluted sewage into a nearby waterway, including our lovely chalk streams.

This happens because even when the surface of the ground is very hard and dry, underneath there is a ‘water table’ where ground water collects in the chalk like a sponge; sewage pipes run through this sponge and if the pipes are cracked, ground water seeps into them. This means that a lot more water goes into the pipes than they can handle and some of it needs to be discharged out of the sewage system.

Some organisations like the WWF are concerned about this kind of pollution of our rivers (see this Independent article from October 2017) but the EA claims that the discharge is so diluted that it will not cause any health problems (such as gastroenteritis, E.coli and salmonella) unless you drank an awful lot of it or have a pre-existing medical condition.

Broken Glass
There is a substantial amount of broken glass and sharp stones in the river bed so it is strongly advised that well soled shoes/wellies/crocs are worn when walking through the water.

More information about local river upkeep

The River Lambourn

Lambourn – Environment Agency on enquiries@environment-agency.gov.uk  03708 506 506
Eastbury – James Potter on villagewardens@eastbury.org 07899 795060
East Garston – Chris Tonge on christopherjtonge@gmail.com 01488 648370
Great Shefford – Steve Ackrill on steve@ackrills.co.uk
Newbury – The Renewal Project

Letcombe Brook 

The Letcombe Brook Project – Mark Bradfield on Letcombebrook@hotmail.com

The River Kennet

ARK: Action for River Kennet

Report Sewage Leaks

Report sewage leaks to Thames Water by calling on 0800 316 9800 to let us know:

  •  what you saw
  •  when you saw it
  •  where you saw it (including a postcode, road name or any local landmarks or features)
  •  whether sewage is entering a river or any other watercourseund

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