So many of you have signed our petition now, we thought it was time to start thinking how we would go about reinstating 100,000 hectares of wetlands in the UK. Here, WWT’s chief scientist, Geoff Hilton describes his vision.
To start with we need to realise how relevant wetlands are to our future. They have a leading role to play in flood defence, which is potentially the biggest natural risk to human life in the UK. There are some decisions to be made: we can’t magically make less water fall on the land but we can make the land more able to cope with the quantities.
“We need to decide, as a society, where to hold water up and where to let it go, the sensible thing to do is hold it up in the uplands where there is little population and we have miles of peat bogs. But it’s important to remember the water has to go somewhere,” says Geoff.
Peat bogs, high up in the hills, would be a big part of the mix because they make up huge areas of the less densely populated areas of the UK and they act like giant sponges.
Where the rivers meet the valleys
Down in the lowlands, where the population is denser and farmland makes up a large part of our landscape things get trickier. Although it might be more challenging, Geoff believes the reinstatement of successful wetlands can be done in carefully chosen places with proper planning.
“Allowing flood plains to connect back to the river in places we choose, maybe on farm land that isn’t high value? I’d love to see some of our big flood plains allowed to do their thing. It’s about finding the right place to let the river come to the valley and spreading out the water in ways that reduces flood risk but also enriches peoples lives by creating wetlands near where they live.”
Small is beautiful
If you think our wetlands are limited to wild, open spaces think again. Wetlands can be created just about anywhere and be any size.
“We need smaller wetlands too, little farm ponds and healthy ditches on farmland to get movement between them,” says Geoff.
"Farm treatment wetlands filter nutrients from fields before they get into the general water system and create pea soup conditions that is bad for wildlife. Farmers can build little wetlands the size of garden ponds with reed beds and a stepped approach that will drop out sediment," he explains.
The microbes that naturally live on the plant roots in these reed bed systems are already used in some industries and can clean anything, even chemical pesticides and run off from roads. And it’s not just water quality that will benefit.
“Because of all the insects that grow in them and then hatch and fly off, ponds feed hedgehogs, yellowhammers, blue tits: if you want more farmland wildlife dig a pond,” says Geoff.
“Putting these systems between farmed fields and rivers to clean the water before it hits the river means wildlife’s winning, society’s winning and water quality’s winning,” he adds.
At WWT we are already involved in projects that support farmers to create these types of wetlands and Geoff hopes it might become something farmers can get grants for.
Making economic sense
So not only do wetlands help absorb the water on the land, they can also help clean it. It’s easy to see how the benefits of creating healthy wetlands could far outweigh the costs. For example, if water flowing into a treatment works is cleaner, because there are successful wetlands around the catchment, the water company spends less on cleaning it and our water bills go down.
Geoff believes that spending money on wetland conservation is an economically sensible thing to do. As a country we have to reduce carbon emissions over the next few years and one of the cheapest ways to do this is to restore our wetlands, especially our peatlands.
“It’s a measurable economically sensible thing to do. We know about peat and carbon, reedbeds and water filtration and that wetlands act as sponges to slow flood waters. People are realising you can’t just keep building bigger and bigger flood defences and so Government reviews are starting to look into natural flood management too,” says Geoff.
The involvement of water companies in wetland restoration is already happening in some areas of the country and it’s a trend that could make our reinstatement of significant areas of wetlands a reality in the near future.
“The water companies know a healthy peatland is a filter for rubbish in the water and so instead of spending money at water treatment works cleaning the water they are spending their money up in the catchment creating cleaner water,” says Geoff.
This of course means they are also recreating wildlife habitats. And as lots of our wildlife in the UK is bog wildlife – waders like curlews and snipe are peatland birds – this is a happy outcome for all. But Geoff is quick to point out that it’s not about going back to the old ways but rather working together to get the right solutions.
“It’s not about going backwards, not about being low tech and not about going back to nature but going forward and understanding how nature works and working with it. It’s about a combination of solutions,” he says.
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