Rivers are essential to the health of our natural world

The Dane valley Photo: Richard Gardner

The Dane valley Photo: Richard Gardner - Credit: Richard Gardner

Katie Piercy from Cheshire Wildlife Trust explores what lives on our rivers, and the threats they are facing

Otters have seen an upturn in their fortunes in recent years. Photo: Amy Lewis

Otters have seen an upturn in their fortunes in recent years. Photo: Amy Lewis - Credit: Amy Lewis

Throughout the UK, rivers criss-cross our landscape with water, one of the most basic building blocks of life. Many types of wildlife take advantage of these areas to feed, drink, or breed, but there are also many specialist species which can only survive in and around healthy rivers. As these free-flowing waters swell from their source to their mouth, race over gravelly beds, meander through gentle twists and turns, run across chalky bedrocks or through peaty bogs, different niches are created. It is within these special habitats that a vast array of species thrive, and it’s this that makes our rivers not only so vibrant but also so important to life.

Stoneflies may not sound like an exciting place to start in our river journey but in fact these tiny insects are fantastic indicators that our rivers are in good shape. Requiring clean water with lots of oxygen, their presence demonstrates that the river is free from pollution. These tiny insects spend the majority of their lives clinging to the bottom of rocks in fast-flowing rivers, hence their name. There are an amazing 34 species across the UK, all of which rely on rivers for their lifecycle. They spend up to four years in the water before hatching and becoming an important food source for other river inhabitants and visitors, such as our summer visiting swifts, martins and swallows.

Talk of migration brings us on to the leaping of salmon. Not so long ago this was a common sight in English rivers. Even today, you might still be lucky enough to catch a glimpse of one of these magnificent fish travelling along waterways, such as the River Dee, navigating their way upstream. Chester itself can boast a good number of passing salmon each summer, and once you have witnessed their seemingly impossible jumping achievement it is an experience you will never forget.

Many birds enjoy life on the river, but one of the most charming has to be the dipper. A small brown bird with a white breast, the dipper is a dainty looking creature superbly adapted to its riverside lifestyle. Often spotted perched atop a rock or fallen branch, surrounded on all sides by a fast flowing current, the dipper will stride confidently into the rapids below as if strolling across a lawn. Underwater, this tiny creature will walk along the bottom of the river, using its wings as basic flippers, and picking up whatever tasty morsels it can find. While submerged, a thin silvery sheen covers its body, formed by tiny bubbles trapped against its feathers – almost as if it is wearing a wetsuit. It uses a clear set of eyelids to help it get a good view under water, while keeping its eyes safe from harm. The dipper can stay submerged for up to 30 seconds at a time, emerging with its beak laden with treats before whirring off to its riverside nest to feed its wide-mouthed chicks.

Atlantic salmon make an incredible journey Photo: Jack Perks

Atlantic salmon make an incredible journey Photo: Jack Perks - Credit: Jack Perks

No-one can speak of species adapted to life in rivers without mentioning the otter, one of our best known and best loved river mammals. Until recently otter numbers had been significantly depleted, with some fearing they might be lost from England entirely. Hunting, pollution and habitat loss were to blame for the near extinction of our otters. However today, their status as a protected species, the improving water quality of many of our rivers and conservation work to restore important areas of habitat, has meant the otter is returning to many places from which it was once lost. In Cheshire, the River Gowy is well known for its playful otters, with regular sightings at Cheshire Wildlife Trust’s Gowy Nature Reserve.

Despite the importance of rivers for our wildlife, over 73% in the UK are considered to be in poor condition. Threats to our beautiful rivers are often large and difficult to tackle.

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Pollution is a major problem. Industrial chemicals are sometimes dumped directly into the water and agricultural fertilisers and pesticides are being washed away into rivers by the rain. Invasive species such as Himalayan balsam, can also cause damage, taking over the riverbanks and outcompeting native species. And of course parts of our rivers have been lost entirely through construction works, banks concreted over, or even the river itself being straightened or narrowed, losing many of the niches required by river wildlife.

Yet despite all this there is a chance for rivers to be brought back into good condition, and for the wildlife within them to thrive. Besides the otter, there are many more conservation success stories, with the most effective being run in partnership with the communities and businesses which rely on the river.

A Grey heron waits for its lunch. Photo: Amy Lewis

A Grey heron waits for its lunch. Photo: Amy Lewis - Credit: Amy Lewis

Today Cheshire Wildlife Trust is carrying out work across three of Cheshire’s most important rivers, the Dane, the Dee and the Gowy – controlling invasive species, working with landowners to reduce pollution and recreating natural habitats. This year also saw the Trust embark on a five-year natural flood management project in the Peak District National Park, as part of the South West Peak Landscape Partnership Scheme. One of the achievements of this scheme will be river restoration.

By working together it will be possible to ensure our rivers continue to be home to a wealth of wildlife. With this we can keep the veins of our countryside flowing, bringing life and joy wherever they go.

come and see the otters

The Gowy Photo: A Walmsley

The Gowy Photo: A Walmsley - Credit: A Walmsley

Cheshire Wildlife Trust’s Gowy Meadows Nature Reserve, near Ellesmere Port, is an extensive area of lowland grazing marsh. Popular with wading and farmland birds, over 130 bird species have been recorded here. Aquatic insects, and water mammals such as the otter and water vole also make their home in the water courses which run through the reserve.

On Saturday September 30th, the Trust is running a guided walk around this reserve which will take you through the different habitats, how they’re managed, and the wildlife that calls the reserve home.

Find out more about ‘The Nature of Gowy Meadows’ event and book a place at cheshirewildlifetrust.org.uk/whats-on

World Rivers Day

This year the annual celebration of rivers will take place on Sunday September 24. Why not take the opportunity to visit a river near you? See what species you can spot and find out for yourself the importance of rivers.