When trout waved lazy in the clear chalk streams, Glory was in me …So wrote poet John Betjeman about his beloved River Kennet. Sadly, the trout have had trouble waving lazy in the Kennet lately. The river, like many in southern England, ran dry this past winter, a victim of high water demand and below-average rainfall. Brown trout and grayling had to be rescued by officers from the Environment Agency, and one fish farmer lost three tonnes of trout.
"When I started here 32 years ago, 60 per cent of the trout were wild fish," said the fish farmer. "Now I reckon it's down to 10%. The whole of the upper river has been destroyed. The lack of water flow means that we've lost almost all the ranunculus weed that holds lots of invertebrates and produces cover for the fish. This is unprecedented."
Alan Crook, an 80-year old who has lived by the Kennet all his life, remembers swimming in the river as a boy: "There were hatches to control the flow of water for the mills. The water there was 10 feet deep. We used to jump in from the bank and have a whale of a time. Now the river's so low that children could never do that. Those days are gone for good." The river is mentioned by Izaak Walton in his seminal work on the art of fly fishing, The Compleat Angler, published in 1653.
With millions of litres being pumped from the Kennet every day for municipal water supply combined with declining rainfall, those carefree summer days of swimming and fishing may indeed be gone for good. A recent report by the Environment Agency starkly warns that rivers across the country are at risk.
What is happening to England's rivers is an example of both sides of our assault on the planet: Our insatiable demand for resources combined with the dumping of our waste into the atmosphere. Declining rainfall, a result of climate change, robs the rivers of their life source while increasing demand for water depletes them.
As even England's green and pleasant land faces a future a lot less green and pleasant, we have yet another warning to mend our profligate and destructive ways.