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Wetlands need to be restored “on an enormous scale” to tackle a future of more dry summers, conservationists have said, as the spectre of drought looms.
The Wildlife Trusts says the loss of wetlands in the past century, from development, drainage for agriculture and over-extraction by water companies, must be reversed to protect river flows and wildlife as the climate warms.
The call comes as months of little rainfall and the recent heatwave have left rivers at exceptionally low levels, have depleted reservoirs and left soil very dry, putting pressure on the environment, farming and water supplies, and raising the risk of wildfires.
Parts of England have seen the driest July in records dating back to 1836, following the driest eight-month period from November 2021 for the country since 1976.
Two water companies, South East Water and Southern Water, have announced hosepipe bans, which will come into force in the coming days.
Other firms have so far held off bringing in restrictions despite low water levels, though some say they may need to implement bans if the dry weather continues.
Water firms across England and Wales, which leak about 3.1 billion litres of water a day from their networks, are required to have plans for ensuring sufficient water supplies, including cutting down on leaks, encouraging customers to use water wisely and imposing hosepipe bans in drought.
Householders who have not yet been hit by restrictions are being urged to avoid using hosepipes for watering the garden or cleaning the car.
But water companies have been criticised by nature campaigners for leaving it to “the last possible moment” to bring in restrictions, when rivers are in a “desperate” state, and for last-minute announcements that spur an increase in water demand before hosepipe bans come in.
Mark Lloyd, chief executive of The Rivers Trust, said: “Every year we get to this perilous position and at the last possible moment, when the rivers are at their lowest, we get discussion of temporary use bans.
“Announcing it at the last minute causes people to rush to wash their cars and fill their paddling pools, wash the dog, and causes an increase in demand before the ban comes in.
“This should happen before the rivers come to a desperate condition and there’s not enough water for wildlife.”
The Rivers Trust is calling for accelerated metering, rapid reduction in leakage, support for households to reduce water usage, such as installing low flow toilets and water butts, and sustainable drainage including rain gardens, wetlands and permeable paving to build up local stores of water underground.
Ali Morse, water policy manager for The Wildlife Trusts, said there was a need to restore wetlands to cope with a future of more dry conditions.
“Development, drainage for agriculture and over-extraction by water companies have contributed to the loss of 90% of our wetlands in the last 100 years – with a devastating impact for wildlife and the natural processes that enable ecosystems to function,” she said.
“As our climate changes, and we experience more dry spells and periods of drought, we must restore wetland habitats on an enormous scale.
“This will help retain water in the landscape when it’s scarce, topping up river flows and providing a much-needed boost to wildlife.
“These same wetlands also hold water back during high flows, benefiting people by reducing risks of flooding downstream,” she said.
And the return of wild beavers to Britain’s rivers can play a crucial role in recreating wetlands, she said, urging the Government to provide reassurance and incentives to farmers to allow the species to return.
“Wild beavers can help to do a lot of this work for us. They change habitats by damming streams, coppicing trees and, ultimately, creating the wetlands that we desperately need.
“It is crucial that Government clears the way for the return of wild beavers by giving farmers reassurances and incentives to allow these ecosystem engineers to get to work.”
Research from the University of Exeter into two beaver sites in Devon as part of a Devon Wildlife Trust trial into their return suggests they not only slow water flow to reduce the risk of flooding following heavy rain, but they can also store water to maintain flows during periods of drought.
Beavers, once widespread in Britain, were hunted to extinction by the 16th century for their meat, fur and glands, but have been making a comeback and are now found living wild on a number of rivers as well as in enclosed sites.
Prof Alastair Driver, director of Rewilding Britain, said projects which restore natural hydrological processes, through measures ranging from blocking drains on the uplands to reintroducing beavers, can increase stream flows, make them more stable and keep water in the land.
Restoring wetlands and boggy areas can also reduce the risk of wildfires or act as a fire break, improve water quality and by creating shade over rivers through more trees can lower water temperatures and evaporation.
And he said: “If we focus more effort on rewilding our floodplains and restoring connectivity between the river and other areas as well, so you get wetter, boggier ground in floodplains and there is more shading, those in combination make a big difference.
“All of this points towards potentially significant benefits in extreme weather conditions, whether it be flood or drought,” he said.