Habitat destruction at the taxpayers expense in the UK

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Recent habitat destruction on the River Mole near London.
Recent habitat destruction on the River Mole near London.

A BIG row has broken out over here in the UK between the environmental regulator and the national peak body for recreational fishing over what has been described as "a scandalous waste of scarce public resources and a disregard for the sensitivity of the water environment".

After a lengthy investigation, the Angling Trust uncovered evidence of the destruction of habitat for fish and other wildlife by Environment Agency contractors carrying out flood defence works on rivers in six English counties, in what has become an issue of national concern.

The problems have arisen from over-zealous contractors, funded by the Environment Agency, causing widespread damage to bankside trees and removing in-river debris. This work has left affected stretches devoid of riparian cover and consequently fish populations are now at significantly greater risk of predation by otters, cormorants and goosanders, and will have less food from invertebrates that rely on vegetation and woody debris.

The Angling Trust issued a formal complaint on behalf of its members regarding related issues on the River Idle in Lincolnshire and the River Mole in the Thames catchment near London. Despite receiving a positive response to enquiries from Environment Agency officers in the River Idle area, with a promise to learn from what appeared to be an isolated incident, it now appears that the problem is much more widespread.

The Angling Trust has received information from anglers in Yorkshire, Lincolnshire, Hampshire, Warwickshire, Surrey and Kent in response to an appeal for information on its Facebook pages. This post reached over 68,000 anglers and almost 10,000 engaged with the thread, demonstrating the scale of the issue. A dossier of evidence compiled by the Angling Trust to demonstrate the impact of the works has been sent to the Environment Agency.

The dossier can be seen here.

There is also some video evidence from the River Mole.

And from the River Colne.

In response to these complaints, Judy Proctor, the Deputy Director for Agriculture, Fisheries & Natural Environment at the Environment Agency has written to the Chief Executive of the Angling Trust confirming that the Agency has reviewed their existing guidance around channel maintenance works. It was also stated that the Agency is working with local managers to ensure appropriate consultation with affected parties is carried out in the future.

The annual budget for flood defence work exceeds the sum generated from rod licence sales for habitat improvement projects by a huge factor, and yet money from the floods budget is being used to undo the good work funded by the other.

Happier Times - Volunteers hammering in stakes to secure in-stream woody debris on an Environment Agency organised Rivers Week.
Happier Times - Volunteers hammering in stakes to secure in-stream woody debris on an Environment Agency organised Rivers Week.

One particularly perverse example was reported on the River Medway in Kent. The stretch in question is controlled by Royal Tunbridge Wells Angling Society, which recently received a grant of £2,000 from the Environment Agency for habitat improvements including tree planting. Therefore, the club were shocked when they visited the stretch in December 2016 to oversee a fish stocking by the EA only to find another department of the same organisation destroying bankside habitat just downstream.

Clive Rainger, Chairman of Royal Tunbridge Wells Angling Society, explained: “The Environment Agency have been extremely professional and very helpful in assisting us to improve the habitat and fish stocks on this stretch of the Medway, but the flood prevention department have clearly not been working in unison. Although we managed to stop the damaging work by the contractors before it was completed, they had already undone some of our hard work."

Mark Lloyd, Chief Executive of the Angling Trust & Fish Legal, said: “The removal of trees and in-river debris is particularly perverse because the EA also funds work to plant riverside trees to shade the water and other projects to install flow-deflectors to create fishery habitat. It constitutes both a scandalous waste of scarce public resources and a disregard for the sensitivity of the water environment.

"We welcome the Environment Agency’s national commitment following our investigation to take steps to stop this happening in future years and to consult properly with our member clubs and fishery owners. We are very grateful to all those who responded to us with information and encourage any member clubs or fishery owners who have concerns about damaging flood defence works to contact us as soon as possible so that we can make representations on their behalf.”

It is somewhat ironic that in July I will be heading across to Vancouver to speak at the World Recreational Fishing Conference alongside Australia's Fish Habitat Chief Craig Copeland on “Successful Angler Engagement in Conservation Projects and Partnerships – the UK Experience”.

Quite clearly I will now have to adjust my talk to reflect this ridiculous behaviour by our Environment Agency who have not only breached their own published policies but may well have failed in their statutory obligations to protect biodiversity.

Martin Salter (right) proudly showing off a new fish pass and habitat enhancement project to Craig Copeland on his local River Loddon.
Martin Salter (right) proudly showing off a new fish pass and habitat enhancement project to Craig Copeland on his local River Loddon.
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