From Acronyms to Zander, via Dredging and Water Companies, John Bailey assesses the numerous challenges our waterways face today and how to promote river health


From beavers and otters, to dredging and drainage, John Bailey highlights what we need to take into account when it comes to river health.

Take a look at the top 10 trout rivers in the UK and Ireland, from the Piddle in Dorset, to the Tay in Scotland. Or find out what you need to consider when attempting to get your children hooked on fishing.


Our rivers are under threat and this affects not just keen fishers but all of us. Our brains are about 75% water, our muscles 75%, our kidneys 85% and plasma in our blood 92%, so in a very real way our rivers are the veins of life. We are all dependent on water but there is much to decry about the state of our rivers in the UK. John Bailey is our guide to what needs taking into account, from A-Z.

Acronyms and Initialisms

The EA (Environment Agency) and NE (Natural England) need little explanation but then there is NRW (Natural Resources Wales), SEPA (Scottish Environment Protection Agency), Ofwat (Water Services Regulation Authority) and even CSOs (Combined Sewer Overflows). Line Of Duty is nothing compared to all this but there is a serious point to be made: there are so many bodies charged with looking after our rivers nobody knows who is doing what and most are doing far too little. Most would agree that WTT (Wild Trout Trust) is doing fine with WUF (Wye & Usk Foundation) and S&TC (Salmon & Trout Conservation) not far behind. But the rest are a gigantic, unholy mish-mash.


On a recent visit to the Tay, I didn’t find a soul in the salmon fraternity who has a good word for the creatures. Fish have found their way to the redds impeded, flooding has increased and the population has exploded. It is odd that fishery scientists want to remove weirs and mill sluices everywhere but are curiously quiet on the subject of beaver-built blockages.


At present, just 1,400 miles out of 42,700 miles of inland waterways in England can be paddled uncontested. British Canoeing is trying to establish a Public Right Of Navigation (PRN) on all rivers, which could be a disaster. On smaller, shallower rivers, canoes destroy weed growth, devastate spawning gravels and trash vegetation and wildfowl nests.

Dredging and Drainage

From the 1950s, deep dredging canalised miles of lowland rivers with the view of draining historic flood meadows and rushing excess water to the sea. Rivers like Norfolk’s Wensum lost 75% of their natural habitat in the drive to create more farmland that largely has resulted in flooding downstream. Upland rivers have suffered, too, from overgrazing, ill-advised forestry, ploughing and peat exploitation. Run-off after rain has increased, washing away even more nutrients and fragile soils.

Environment Agency

“The EA turned 25 years old but our rivers won’t be celebrating,” Nick Measham, chief executive of S&TC, said in April. Of our 42 salmon rivers, 39 are at risk; sewage treatment plants are not being visited enough and an average farm can expect to be inspected for agricultural diffuse pollution offences every 263 years. Prosecutions of polluters have fallen yearly and Guy Linley-
Adams of S&TC has said: “the system is broken. The watchdog has been beaten, chained up and muzzled.”

Feargal Sharkey

He of The Undertones and A Good Heart. The good news is many of us do care about our rivers, including Sharkey. His campaigning is based on passion and a mastery of the facts. In 2019, water companies spent 1.5 million hours discharging sewage into rivers and Wessex Water dumped sewage into the Hampshire Avon catchment for 14,642 hours.

Grey Water

Domestic waste water from laundry and showering can be recycled to flush toilets and water the garden, as well as clean cars, rather than taking water from our rivers through abstraction. This is exacerbated because we waste so much water. Porous drives and car parks would allow water into the aquifer and waterbutts (available for less than £50) collect rainwater to use on plants. To save our rivers we need to think smart.


Professor Sir Dieter Helm’s masterpiece Green & Prosperous Land: A Blueprint for Rescuing the British Countryside, does what it says on the cover. Chapter 3, ‘Restoring Rivers’, should be mandatory reading for every last person in the water industry. The book costs 20 quid but could save our lives.

Indigenous strains

When it comes to stocking, this century the mantra amongst fishery scientists is that only fish descended from the river’s stocks will do and genetic purity is all. This is linked to the belief in habitat restoration: get rivers right and fish stocks will look after themselves. After 25 years following this twin policy, fish stocks of every species in most UK rivers continue to fall. The divide between the ‘experts’ and those who live and work with river fish grows annually.

Jetting the gravels

Spawning beds of gravels become compacted with time and often clogged with silt running off poorly drained fields and uplands (see Dredging and Drainage). Cleaning with a supercharged vacuum cleaner separates the gravels, aerates the redds and promotes successful reproduction – providing canoes are kept well away.

Kick Sampling

Getting in the river and ‘kicking’ the gravels to disturb and collect invertebrates reveals the strength of their populations and any subtle pollutants present. The S&TC has a Smart River scheme where you are taught to sample by means of a three-minute kick/sweep protocol. The data generates a water-quality score card, which provides evidence and focus for future action.


Water companies pay little for water so it is cheaper to lose treated water through leaks than to repair the pipes. Around 30% of treated water is lost this way, leading to more abstraction and low, vulnerable rivers. Water companies have committed to delivering a 50% reduction in leakage from 2017 levels by 2050 but as we prepare for a drier future this seems a long way off.


The belief in river habitat and restoration is widespread and welcomed. The WTT is a leader in this and the work it has inspired has transformed many beats, notably the Glaven in Norfolk at Stody estate and Bayfield. Work on the Nar has been spectacular: “we have returned to the river its gradient and its gravel. It is amazing how energetic a chalkstream is when you give it back these things,” says Charles Rangeley-Wilson.

North Uist

We all know how sea-trout rivers have crashed as a result of dangerous levels of PCB (polychlorinated biphenyl) and dioxins, pesticides and mercury resulting mainly from Scottish salmon farms. Fergus, 6th Earl Granville, owner of the Hebridean Smokehouse, came up with an answer. Eggs are stripped from local salmon stocks to maintain genetic integrity. Young salmon are raised in vast enclosed tanks. The sea pens are placed where there is a 10ft tidal drop so residue is washed away. The pens hold only 30% of the usual number of adult salmon to cut down on lice infestations. I fished and filmed there the back end of 2020 and sea-trout were everywhere.

Otters and other predators

Predation has denuded our rivers of life. Otters eat crayfish, waterfowl, small mammals like water voles and then fish in that order on many rivers. Cormorant numbers have grown 20 times this century, and they eat a kilo of fish between 4oz and 2lb daily. The impact on heron, grebe and kingfisher numbers has also been significant. Seal populations have exploded and 50% of the world’s grey and common seals live around the UK’s shores. Having wiped out coastal mullet, bass and sea-trout runs, seals are starting to move up rivers.

Pharmaceutical industry

Responsible for antibiotics, contraceptive pills and antidepressants, which go down our waste pipes. Water companies can’t deal with all the residue, which ends up in rivers, messing with algae, fish and birds. What if giants like GlaxoSmithKline and Unilever paid their share to clean up the effects of their products?

Questionable Practices

Poaching is a bigger problem than many realise. The removal of big fish from our rivers is insidious and damaging. Prosecutions are rare and fines laughable. The UK and Ireland are unique in their laxness. There is too little bailiffing and bye-laws that are outdated need tightening.


We all love to see common water-crowfoot flower above tresses of green but there has been a severe decline with huge effects. Shade, food and protection for fish has been lost and flooding risks are increased as excess water is not held back. Sometimes there are easy reasons. Canoes (see previous) but also the RSPB admits there has been a noticeable increase in mute swan populations. Well-known trout man Tim Aldiss fenced a living room-sized area of his river off from the swans two years ago and ranunculus bloomed like never before. The EA and the IDB (Inland Drainage Board) insisted it be removed as a flood risk.


The dumping of untreated sewage into rivers has become widespread, from both domestic and agricultural sources. Feargal Sharkey (see previous) revealed on a recent trip to the Lea that most of its water comes out of Luton sewage works, such is the rate of abstraction. Animal waste is just as bad. In 2019, the Wye turned putrid green from algal growth, an ‘ecological disaster’, said WUF. Along much of the Wye catchment there are 64 free-roaming chickens for every human, and much of their excrement finds its way into the river; 75 more poultry farms were approved between 2017 and 2020.

Three Dimension Corridors

Instigate them between farmland and rivers to give better protection from run-off than simple buffer strips. Creating small wetlands and planting with wildflower seeds gives rivers and wildlife much needed breathing space.

Usk valley

Let’s not be all doom and gloom. I have just visited the Usk and been startled at how strong salmon returns have been. On beats here, there really are salmon to be caught, along with those legendary enormous wild brown trout that still flourish. Much of the Usk is a beacon of hope and a reminder that the pulse of nature beats strongly when we allow it.

Water Companies

Not all are equal. Anglian Water invests heavily, South West Water has helped with the creation of peat bogs at the head of the Exe/Barle catchment and United Utilities have restored blanket bogs in the Forest of Bowland. More like this please.


There is division over how our rivers are managed between academic knowledge and the experience and wisdoms built over the lifetimes of gillies and anglers. Dialogue between the camps is needed.

Your Responsibility

We use 142 litres of water a day each; the Danes use half that. A bath takes 80 litres and a power shower five litres a minute. If you wash your car, that’s 250 litres – unless you live in London, where offer a waterless process. The less we use, the more water stays in our rivers.


Non-native species such as Zander, and the plague of signal crayfish, proves that our rivers are fragile and that native populations should not be jeopardised by ill-considered introductions. Our rivers are often tiny, always precious and we need an overhaul of how we treat and manage them.