Windermere is dying says young ecologist Matt Staniek
- Credit: Milton Haworth
For as long as Matt Staniek can remember he has been enjoying the wildlife around Windermere. Growing up in the Lakes and spending his teens at Lakes School in Troutbeck Bridge, gave him access to England’s largest lake and its catchment.
‘I was always straight into the environment: the woods, the lakes and wherever, just looking for the wildlife,’ he says.
After school, Matt went to Madagascar for three months to help research into biodiversity, which gave him a taste of what he wanted to do with his life. And after studying at Myerscough College and Salford University, where he gained a degree in zoology, Matt noticed something was wrong with the biodiversity back in his beloved Windermere.
‘The first thing I noticed was the lack of freshwater vegetation,’ says Matt standing in his favourite spot where the confluence of the Brathay and Rothay rivers pour into the lake. ‘There used to be an abundance of fish, which would come and nibble my skin when I stood in the water. Over the years they have gone.
‘Otter spraint no longer includes white-clawed crayfish shells. The dippers which feed on invertebrates have moved away. Fishermen tell me the trout and salmon are no longer respawning and it is believed the arctic char have completely gone from the southern basin of the lake,’ says Matt.
And then there are the algae blooms, which used to just come in the summer months, but now seem to come all year round. ‘There was one just two days before Christmas 2021,’ says Matt. ‘This reflects just how high the phosphate levels are.’
Climate change is partly to blame, he says. The other notable culprit is sewage. It is the latter which has sparked a campaign which has already shaken up the authorities responsible for the environment in general and the Lakes in particular.
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He hopes that once the ecological death of Windermere has been averted, its rescue can be used as a pilot plan for all fresh waterways in the UK.
‘At first I was seen as this crazy lunatic shouting about what was happening on social media, but when I started a petition and it reached 60,000 names, then it showed people care and organisations started to take notice.’ Matt’s petition now has around 110,000 signatures.
He engaged with partners like South Cumbria Rivers Trust (SCRT), for whom he worked as a volunteer, and the Freshwater Biological Association (FBA). The President of the SCRT, Lord Cavendish, has been a particular supporter.
Lord Cavendish told Lancashire Life: ‘The long-standing campaign to clean up Windermere has been hugely enhanced by the tireless efforts of the young Matt Staniek. While his passion for the cause never fades, he employs reason rather than rhetoric; courtesy rather than intemperate abuse and his patient determination gets results and wins him friends.
‘I enjoy debating this important issue with Matt and have the greatest respect for his commitment and sense of purpose.’
The SCRT provided Matt with statistics which showed just how bad the problem had become.
The rivers trust produced a map showing that there had been 1,719 legally permitted storm overflow discharges from sewage treatment works into Windermere in 2020.
Phosphate spikes that have been recorded are ten times worse than 2019, when it was downgraded from official designation of good to moderate.
He has organised a partnership of United Utilities, the water company covering the North West, the Environment Agency, which polices water quality, the Lake District National Park Authority, representing the wider environment, as well as the SCRT and FBA. They have agreed that 40% of the pollution comes from United Utilities operations, 30% from 1,500 unregulated septic tanks in the Windermere catchment area and 30% from diffuse agricultural run-off.
But it is not just the authorities Matt has in his sights, it is all of us. Tourists, second homeowners, campers, chalet occupiers and hotels all add to the sewage burden. Not all septic tank owners understand how they operate and what maintenance they need.
‘People have to realise that everything that they put down the sink or the toilet ends up in the system and ultimately our drinking water,’ he said. ‘It is up to all of us to change our behaviour.’
United Utilities stress that they have spent £40 million upgrading the various treatment works in Windermere catchment area and claim that just 5% of their discharge is untreated sewage.
But Matt says: ‘Even though they have spent all that money, the problem is still getting worse. There needs to be collaboration to address an unprecedented problem.’
His campaign has raised hackles with some businesses who say his dire warnings of an ecologically dead Windermere threatens the local economy, especially now wild swimming has become so popular.
But Matt says: ‘I am not going to shut up about it. If me just talking about it has an impact on tourism in the Lakes, how much worse is the impact going to be if the Lake becomes ecologically dead, or people can’t swim in the lake because it is so polluted. It is very short sighted to try to pretend the threat doesn’t exist.’
What he wants from the authorities is to come up with a target date by which time all pollution is removed from the lake.
‘It could be a ten-year plan or a 25-year plan, but there must be a target date by when Windermere is ecologically healthy. We need a definition of what that is going to look like and by when we are going to get there.
‘Then if Windermere is the first place in the country where water quality is restored, that can be used as a pilot to roll out everywhere.’
There is growing national realisation that something fundamental has to change. A cross-party parliamentary group recently concluded that just 14 per cent of English rivers meet good ecological standards. The impact on humans, the environment and wildlife is equally devastating.
‘Windermere is the jewel in the crown of the Lake District and if we can get enough attention and investment to solve the problem here, then we can take the methodology to every freshwater site in the country,’ says Matt.
‘We have to start somewhere. The conversations have to include the water companies, but every stakeholder has to agree to do something about it.’
Matt, who can often be seen, accompanied by his faithful Labrador Bo, patrolling the shores of Windermere, is this Spring moving on from his campaign. He now wants to get on with engineering change.
He is setting up a Community Interest Company, called Windermere Lake Recovery, which he hopes will give people a chance to get involved, either with crowd funding or volunteering. Education will be a key aim.
‘The campaign got the regulators and other bodies to acknowledge there is a problem. Now we have to engage the public in conversations about what they put down the toilet,’ he says.
Matt insists that the challenge extends beyond the waterways. ‘We have to address the challenges of improving the land. We have to work with farmers and landowners to improve the meadows, provide more trees, which in turn improves water quality in the rivers.
‘Bio-diversity loss is an interconnected web. By improving terrestrial habitats, we will improve water quality,’ he adds.
It is clear that Matt, still just 26 years old, will not rest until the welfare of the wildlife he enjoyed as a child is secured.