Test and Itchen News Archive
2020 – A GOOD YEAR FOR CHALKSTREAM SALMON & SEA TROUT
In what was a gloomy year for so many reasons, 2020 turned out to be an exceptionally good year, by recent standards, for salmon and sea trout in the Test and Itchen. About 3,000 returning salmon moved up the Test to their spawning grounds, well over double the five-year average. The Itchen saw a similar increase.
Nobody knows for sure what explains this welcome development. Reduced commercial fishing in inshore waters is one theory. The fear is that 2020 might be a one-year blip in what has otherwise been a steady decline over the last four decades. Small numbers of salmon parr (juveniles) in the Test and Itchen in 2020 fish surveys do not bode well for returning numbers of adult fish in the years to come.
HEAVY WINTER RAINFALL AUGURS WELL FOR SUMMER RIVER FLOWS IN 2021
Chalkstreams depend on groundwater in the chalk aquifers for their flow. These aquifers recharge in the autumn and winter. Heavy winter rainfall means good flows the following summer.
Heavy rainfall in the October-December 2020 period amounted to more than 150% of the long-term average, with October being exceptionally wet. Groundwater levels responded. This bodes well for strong summer flows in 2021.
RIVER FLIES STRUGGLE ON THE TEST & ITCHEN
Poor water quality, as reflected in the absence of river flies in the numbers and diversity that were one of the hallmarks of the Test and Itchen, is the issue of greatest concern to our members.
The Association invests heavily in collecting and analysing river fly samples. In November, we got the results of our monitoring campaign in 2020. The results showed that river flies continued to suffer from excessive sediment, organic pollution and low flows, amongst other stressors. On a more positive note, there was further evidence that river restoration projects lead to improvements in river fly life. Working with our partners, we will be using the results to put pressure on the regulators to address the causes of poor water quality. We will also be campaigning for ambitious chalkstream river fly standards, reflecting the environmental importance of these rivers, of which over 80% of the global total can be found in England.
Members of the Association can find all the data and analysis in the Members Area of this website.
It is with great sadness that we report that Jim Glasspool passed away on 7 September. Jim was Secretary of the Test and Itchen Association for 20 years from 1991 to 2011, and then a member of the Board. He attended his last Board meeting by Zoom in June, demonstrating that he always moved with the times as well as having an encyclopaedic knowledge of everything to do with the history of the Hampshire chalkstreams. His wise counsel, deep scientific knowledge and consensual approach to tackling problems will be greatly missed. He was a true gentleman – and a fine fisherman. He was fishing on his beloved Itchen only a few days before he died.
Jim made a contribution to fishing and the environment on a much wider stage than that provided by the Test and Itchen Association. He was, for example, instrumental in setting up the Angling Trust, the national fishing organisation, and the Wessex Rivers Trust. The Association will carry a full tribute to Jim in its 2020 Rivers Report.
SOUTHERN WATER START RIVER TEST DROUGHT ORDER APPLICATION PROCESS
On 7 August, Southern Water announced that they had started the 60-day process of applying for a Drought Order on the River Test. A Drought Order would allow Southern Water to continue abstracting water from the river if the flow fell below the minimum level agreed during the March 2018 Public Inquiry into Southern Water’s abstraction licences.
We have had some hot and dry spells of weather recently, but there has been 130% of the long-term average rainfall over the last 12 months, so there should be no need for our chalkstreams to be threatened in this way. The reason they are is that Southern Water have failed to invest in new sources of water – reservoirs, desalination plants, more water re-use. They are committed to having these new sources of water available by 2027, but progress towards this objective has been glacially slow.
With groundwater levels and river flows still mainly normal or above average for the time of year across the region, there really should be no reason for Southern Water to pursue this application unless we have an exceptionally dry September and October.
A GOOD YEAR FOR CHALKSTREAM SALMON AND SEA TROUT?
The Test and Itchen are best known as trout rivers, but they have historically had big salmon and sea trout runs. As elsewhere in the country, numbers have declined significantly over recent decades, but July saw a welcome surge in the numbers entering both rivers.
Up to the end of July, 500 salmon and 310 sea trout had entered the Test, against a 5-year average of 350 and 160 respectively. The numbers for the Itchen were 220 salmon and 275 sea trout, against a 5-year average of 140 and 160.There are a number of theories as to why this might be – reduced commercial coastal fishing because of the pandemic, a good spawning winter two or three winters ago and unusual barometric pressures amongst them – but no proven explanation. Migratory fish normally respond to increased river flows but that cannot be the explanation this year.
Whatever the explanation, long may the surge continue!
As part of the first steps in the easing of the Coronavirus restrictions, the government has announced that fishing is a permitted activity with effect from 13 May. For chalkstream fishermen, this announcement is particularly timely as the first hatches of Mayfly are being reported on the Test and Itchen. It follows a lot of hard work by the Angling Trust and others persuading the government that fishing is an inherently very low risk activity from the point of view of catching or spreading the virus.
Fishermen will need to abide by social distancing guidelines and can only fish with a member of their own household or one other person. Fisheries will be putting in place measures to make fishing as safe as possible. There will be restrictions on the use of fishing huts and other shared facilities for at least the next few weeks.
Test and Itchen fisheries will be looking to open as soon as possible but not all of them will be in a position to do so on 13 May. Check the position with the fishery you are planning to visit before travelling.
WHEELABRATOR ABANDON PLANS TO BUILD HUGE INCINERATOR NEAR BARTON STACEY
On 20 February, Wheelabrator announced that it will no longer proceed with its plans to build a colossal waste-to-energy facility at Harewood, near Barton Stacey (see October 2019 News Item).
This is a very welcome development. The Association made the case that the facility would have posed a risk to water quality in the Upper Test and Dever. More fundamentally, there was no need for another waste-to-energy facility in Hampshire. If there was, Harewood was not the place to build it.
The company’s decision not to proceed followed an energetic and well-organised campaign by a local group, Bin the Incinerator, which helped generate thousands of objections to the proposal. The Association was pleased to be one of many national and local environmental groups who objected to the plan, as did local MPs and Councils.
A good day for the Test Valley.
HEAVY WINTER RAINFALL BODES WELL FOR RIVER FLOWS THIS SUMMER
A River Test Drought Permit was issued on 6 September 2019, with river flows exceptionally low and groundwater levels declining rapidly. As is often the case with such events, the heavens then opened. Rainfall across the Test and Itchen Catchments over the four-month period September-December 2019 was more than 150% of the long-term average. The total of 504mm. was the highest since 2002 (505mm). River flows responded and by the end December they ranged from above normal for the time of year (Chilbolton on the Test) to High (Broadlands on the Test, Highbridge on the Itchen, Mislingford on the Meon).
Groundwater levels in the chalk aquifer also responded quickly to the heavy rainfall, beginning to recover at the end of September, earlier than usual. Groundwater levels across the Catchments are now above normal for the time of year. All this bodes well for river flows this coming Summer.
A US company called Wheelabrator is planning to build a colossal new waste-to-energy facility at Barton Stacey, near the confluence of the Upper Test and Dever. It would be more than twice the size of Winchester Cathedral and burn 500,000 tonnes of waste a year. The Association is deeply concerned about the potential environmental impact of this development to which it strongly objects.
The Association believes the development would constitute both an immediate and potential threat to the water quality of the Upper Test and Dever and the chalk aquifer on which they depend for their flows. The water demands of the plant when in operation would place extra demands on an already stressed water supply network in area of water shortage, with consequential adverse impacts on river flows.
More fundamentally, there is no requirement for an additional waste to energy facility in Hampshire. If there was, a greenfield site with no existing infrastructure would not be the place to build it. Doing so, would be an act of environmental vandalism. This ill-conceived proposal should not be allowed to progress any further.
MEMBERS DAY AT SPARSHOLT
90 members of the Association gathered at Sparsholt on 18 October for the Association’s annual Autumn Members day. During the morning, we enjoyed a series of excellent talks. Paul Knight, Chief Executive of Salmon and Trout Conservation, and Neil Freeman, Chairman of the Test Salmon Group, got the morning started by underlining the seriousness of the situation facing salmon and sea trout in Hampshire’s chalkstreams and the need to take bold action now to arrest the decline in the number of these fish returning to our rivers. Shirley Medgett from the Environment Agency then explained the criteria used by the regulators to judge the condition of the chalkstreams and how the rivers were doing against those yardsticks.
The morning continued in lighter vein with Gilly Bate sharing some “Confessions of a fishing guide” and Ron Dadswell, one of the Association’s River Test wardens, entertaining us with stories about some of the fascinating things he has stumbled across in his 20 years patrolling the riverbank. The morning concluded with master fisherman Charles Jardine revealing his “10 Commandments” for the chalkstream fly-fisher. Some of us then moved on to Bossington on the River Test to see how a major and ambitious river restoration project had turned out two years after it was completed. The results were truly impressive.
The consensus was that it was an excellent day – informative, stimulating and entertaining and a good opportunity to network with other chalkstream enthusiasts, whether they be river owners, river keepers or fishermen.
RIVER TEST DROUGHT PERMIT GRANTED
The Environment Agency granted Southern Water’s River Test Drought Permit application on 6 September. River Test flows are still above the level – known as the Hands-Off Flow – that would require Southern Water to rely on the permit to continue abstraction so there is no need for Southern Water to use the permit yet, but the fact that the permit has been granted is an indication of how low river levels have fallen in recent weeks.
The new abstraction licences imposed on Southern Water in March mean that drought permits are likely to be a more regular occurrence until Southern Water has brought on stream new sources of water supply. These new sources include the construction of a desalination plant and a new reservoir. More water re-use and leak and demand reduction are also part of the mix. The Association and like-minded organisations will be maintaining the pressure on Southern Water to keep to the timetable in their latest Business Plan for the implementation of these projects and initiatives. 2027 is the date by which Southern Water should have completed most of the work.
In the meantime, a significant sum of Southern Water money – about £10 million – has been set aside for various initiatives to make the Hampshire chalkstreams more resilient to low flows. This is welcome but is not a substitute for developing new sources of water – the Chiltern chalkstreams are a sad reminder of what happens when chalkstreams and their underlying chalk aquifer are over-abstracted for public water supply.
SALMON AND SEA TROUT NUMBERS CRASH
The latest figures from the Environment Agency for salmon and sea trout entering the Test and Itchen from the sea make depressing reading. Up to the end of August, only 150 salmon had entered the Test since the beginning of the year. Over the last three years, the average for this time of year has been 500. That in itself is way below the Test salmon runs of the past that used to be counted in thousands. The figures for sea trout entering the Test show a similar marked decline. Both salmon and sea trout numbers have now fallen below what is considered the minimum for a sustainable population.
The figures for the Itchen are also low but have held up better than the Test. Why? River flows have been stronger on the Itchen than the Test which might be part of the explanation – migratory fish need strong flows to encourage them to enter the river from the sea. The collapse of an obstacle to upstream migration at the bottom of the Itchen might also help explain why the numbers are better in comparison to the Test. Food for thought.
MEMBERS DAY AT LECKFORD
There is no shortage of problems facing the chalkstreams. Over-abstraction of water leading to low river flows. Poor water quality contributing to declines in river flies. Invasive species threatening native fauna and flora. It is sometimes easy to forget just how magical the Hampshire chalkstreams remain.
Our members were given an opportunity to celebrate all that is best about them at our Summer Event which took place in the glorious surroundings of the Leckford Estate at Longstock. We enjoyed fly-fishing masterclasses, casting clinics and competitions, and fly-tying demonstrations. There were botanist-guided walks, photography workshops and a river-fly stand for those not solely focussed on improving their chances of catching a River Test trout. The Leckford team laid on an outstanding Hog Roast lunch to recharge our batteries between the morning and afternoon programmes.
Our Members Day at Longstock on the Leckford Estate on 8 June was a chance to celebrate all that makes the chalk streams such special places, learn a little more about the environment and have some fun. We were blessed with a perfect day. There was a casting competition, a casting clinic and fly-tying demonstrations, as well as fishing on the Longstock lakes, for the fishermen. And guided riverside walks, an introduction to river fly life and an opportunity to visit the stunning Leckford Estate Water Gardens for those interested in the natural beauty of the Middle Test valley in early June. We all came together in the middle of the day for a magnificent Hog Roast lunch provided by the Leckford Estate keepers. The day seemed to be thoroughly enjoyed by all who came. It was also a good opportunity for the Association to invite as our guests representatives of organisations with which we work closely. It is the first time the Association has run such an event. We will definitely aim to do something similar next summer.
Our next membership event will be at Sparsholt on Friday 26 October. The format will be a series of talks and presentations in the morning on subjects of interest to our members, followed by lunch and a river visit in the afternoon.
This time last year low river flows following a dry winter were a major concern. This will hopefully not be the case this year. We have had a wet Winter and Spring – rainfall in the Test, Itchen and Meon catchments was about 115% of the Long Term Average over the six months from November to April, with March and April being notably wet. River flows were all above normal or notably high at the end of May, and with groundwater levels above normal too there should be no shortage of water in the rivers this summer. Levels are beginning to drop, but with the aquifers full there should be no cause for concern.
The Association, working closely with like-minded organisations like the Wild Trout Trust, has prompted a change of heart from the Environment Agency on the swingeing increases they were planning to introduce for what they charge river owners to permit river restoration and maintenance projects. We made a strong case that by charging hundreds if not thousands of pounds for a licence to undertake projects to improve the environmental condition of the river and riverbank, they were penalising the very people they should be encouraging to undertake this essential work, with no obvious added benefit. The Environment Agency published the response to the consultation exercise in April. They accepted that the increased charges risked being counter-productive and introduced a new category of permit under which the price of a licence for work of environmental value remained unchanged from the past. This change of heart will hopefully save some of our members hundreds, perhaps thousands, of pounds when undertaking river restoration and maintenance projects in the future. A small demonstration of how the Association can help our members in practical ways.
There are reasons to be optimistic about future river flows. We have been working hard with like-minded organisations to support the efforts of the Environment Agency to restrict future abstraction of water from the Hampshire chalkstreams for public water consumption to more sustainable levels. We can report success! At a Public Inquiry in March, Southern Water agreed to all the changes to their abstraction licences proposed by the Environment Agency. This is a complicated issue and hard to summarise succinctly, but, in essence, the Inquiry outcome means that Southern Water will not be able to abstract more water from the rivers than they have in the past – and less than they have hitherto been licensed to. With the number of water customers growing, this means they are now required to develop the alternative water sources required to meet demand. In turn, this means that they are committed over the next ten years to investing in these alternative sources, the main ones being a new reservoir, a desalination plant and increased use of grey water by their industrial customers. They will also be working on demand reduction initiatives and doing more to fix leaks in the system. The Association cannot claim all the credit for the Inquiry outcome, but we contributed to it by consistently and doggedly lobbying alongside our partners – for the best part of eight years. Partnerships matter. Patience helps! Very little can be achieved when it comes to the long-term health of the chalkstreams without working closely with others on long-term goals.
Something of real concern to many of our members is poor water quality – which directly impacts on the number and range of invertebrates living in the chalkstreams. Where have all the river flies gone? is an often-heard refrain. The Association has been busy on this issue. We have trained a significant number of invertebrate monitors to collect the data we need on river fly numbers. We have arranged for the collection and expert analysis of invertebrate samples in the Test, Itchen and Meon to establish clear and scientifically robust base-lines and have just received the data. It is available for our members to peruse in the Members Archive section of this website. Wessex Chalk Streams and Rivers Trust (WCSRT) will use some of the data to produce a Catchment Study for the Meon which we will distribute to our membership later this year. WCSRT produced something similar on the Test and Itchen for our members in 2016.
We have worked with others in the past to call successfully for new phosphate discharge regulations from watercress farms which have now been implemented and are being complied with. We are lobbying hard with others to stop one of the watercress companies being permitted to send harmful chemicals used to clean their washing and packing plants into the headwaters of the Itchen. We have also worked with others on projects to prevent excessive levels of sediment getting into the rivers – we know that excessive nutrient (including phosphate) and sediment levels are the two main culprits. And the many river restoration projects that our members are carrying out create the river habitat invertebrates need to thrive.
There is much more to do to resolve all the problems that have led to a reduction over time in river fly numbers. But we have made a start. We will continue to work closely with others to achieve progress – Salmon and Trout Conservation UK have led the way on the Hampshire chalkstreams and they will remain our key partner in this area.