A winter joy for me is a walk by a Peak District river to hear the dipper’s wren-like courtship call and to watch brown trout spawning in the gravelly shallows. Rivers are some of the best-loved and accessible parts of the Peak District National Park landscape.
The 900 kilometres of our 24 rivers vary from the tumbling torrents draining the moors in the Dark and South West Peak to the spring-fed rivers that empty the limestone aquifers in the limestone dales.
A characteristic of our limestone ‘karst landscape’ is that as much of the water runs underground as above ground. A fun thing to do with children is to cycle down the Manifold Trail watching where the river Manifold runs dry downstream of a flowing stream. To the poet Charles Cotton these brooks were ‘streams supplied below, which scatter blessings as they go’.
The blessings are still many. Peak District National Park rivers are rich in wildlife, home to grey wagtails and kingfishers and also to brook lamprey, bullhead, brown trout and grayling. They supply water to the local area and anglers still cast a fly to a rising brown trout on a summer evening, 350 years after Cotton and his friend Izaak Walton did so.
But, all is not well with our rivers. In November 100 residents of the village of Youlgrave packed the local hall worried about very low flows in the River Bradford. Their worries were for the environment and also because they get their water from a local supply.
Warren Slaney, river keeper for the Haddon Estate where he looks after the rivers Wye, Lathkill and Bradford describes this season as ‘heartbreaking’. Each yearWarren waits for the autumn rains to fill the deep cavernous aquifers in the limestone below Bradford and Lathkill Dales. For two winters these have been late and little. Under lying snow and frost-hardened soils little water reaches deep into the ground. So, summer river flows have been virtually negligible. In July fisheries officers for the Environment Agency joined Warren to save fish from rapidly drying and oxygen-depleted pools in the Lathkill.
Elsewhere, anglers have described 2011 as a disaster and the Trent Rivers Trust has called for urgent action to be taken on the River Dove. Andrew Heath from the Trust talks of the ‘murky polluted water’ flowing through the Beresford Beat on the Dove this summer. This is the crucible of angling, where Cotton built the ‘FishingTemple’ as a symbol of his fishing friendship with Walton. Downstream, in the National Trust’s Wolfscote and Dovedale summer tourists have looked on worried at the polluted river.
My colleague and Peak District National Park Authority ecologist Rhodri Thomas shares these concerns. ‘Overall our Peak District rivers are high quality compared with lowland rivers, but there is a moderate to high risk of low flows causing ecological damage. In some seasons recently we’ve seen complete seasonal drying in some rivers and low flows on others. I fear that the climate change predictions of hotter and drier summers could make this much worse in the future’.
Climate change is one factor, but there are other causes too. Water prices have surged in recent years and farmers have sunk boreholes to supply the drinking water vital to their stock. Historically, lead-miners bore underground drainage channels, or ‘soughs’ in the limestone rock to drain the ore-bearing mines. With lower flows, any escaping sewage, farm waste or pesticides get more concentrated in the river, with less clean water to dilute them, And in limestone environments the complex chemistry of the mineral-rich rocks may create ‘natural’ forms of pollution that can be worsened by landslips and erosion.
Urgent action is needed and working with the Trent Rivers Trust, farmers, other agencies and the local community we are re-doubling our efforts to protect these jewels of the Peak District landscape.
This article was first published in my column for the Derbyshire Magazine ‘View from the Peak District’ in January 2012.