My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend Lord Chidgey on the timing of this debate after the sewage and water vote last week, and coinciding with the COP 26 conference. The issue of chalk streams is a very valuable subject to raise, particularly this week. My noble friend gave a very comprehensive review of the issues and my colleague and noble friend Lord Addington commented on the importance of the recreational uses and plans for these areas.
It is one of the pleasures and privileges of my life that I live in the heart of the Hampshire chalk stream country, right beside the River Meon. I am actually rather disappointed that nobody else in the House lives as close as I do to a chalk stream. The River Meon is the third of the three great Hampshire chalk streams: the Test, the Itchen and the Meon. It is the fastest-flowing of the three and is remarkable for the fact that the fish have to work harder, and are smaller, slimmer and fitter as a result, than their brethren in the Test and the Itchen.
I am a warden of the St Clair’s Meadow wildlife trust on the flood plain of the Meon, right opposite my house. It is a community-owned project of over 40 acres, financed by community donations and a Biffa Award from landfill tax revenues, and it is run by the Hampshire and Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust. Before I say a bit more about the trust, I will take your Lordships back over 100 years—I think the noble Lord, Lord Lexden, will certainly appreciate this—to a man who probably did more than anybody else to promote chalk streams.
Not far from my home on the Meon, the great Liberal Foreign Secretary—also the longest-serving Foreign Secretary, from 1905 to 1916—Viscount Grey had a fishing lodge on the banks of the River Itchen. He used to catch the train from Waterloo station to Winchester and walk along the riverbank to his lodge most weekends in the summer. He wrote two books, one a very famous one on fishing and one on the charms of birds. He was an ornithologist. He was subsequently criticised for spending too much time fishing in the summer of 1914. I think this is slightly unfair. It is said that he should have been working to avoid a world war. Remarkably, the first time he actually went abroad was earlier that year in 1914, but who can blame him when he had a bolthole as idyllic as he had by the River Itchen?
The lodge no longer exists—it was burned down after the war—but I have often walked along that river footpath where the foundations still lie, and I cannot blame him for spending so much time there. It is an idyllic place, so much better than the formalities of Chevening or even Chequers, and an ideal place to relax and reflect on the cares of the world.
But I digress. Let me take your Lordships back to the Meon to reflect on how remarkable these chalk streams still are and how we should be trying to retain the idyllic environment, which would perhaps have been more evident 100 years ago at the time of Viscount Grey, without the current threats. The Meon rises in the Downs, five miles to the north of where I live. It is spring-fed, and it enters the sea in the Solent, just south of the medieval abbey of Titchfield, owned in Tudor times by Shakespeare’s sponsor, the Earl of Southampton. Every morning when I am in Hampshire, I walk along the banks of the Meon with my dog. It always makes me sad on a Monday to face the fact that I have to come up to London.
Let me share with your Lordships some of the pleasures of a chalk stream. At the start of my walk up the Downs, looking above the river, you see the skylarks springing out of the cornfields in the summer and in the hedges in the winter. The same crops have been grown in those fields since medieval times, as the Bishop of Winchester’s records show. He used to own the land. As you walk down to the river, you listen to the plop of the water voles as they scurry off the banks. You look for the trout in the river—the clear waters and the gravel beds over the chalk—and hope to see the fish rise for the surface flies. You are more likely to see them in the evening than the morning. In the sky you see the ruthlessness of nature: the circling of the herons, if they are not by the riverbank looking for the trout.
Very rarely, you might be lucky to witness the bright blue of a kingfisher coming out of the banks. In the midday sun, there is a profusion of butterflies. You will note the overnight digging of badgers searching for worms on the soft banks, and if you are really lucky you might hear, but will not see, the otters slipping into the waters. You might disturb a deer or two. You will notice now that the banks have been fenced off to allow for their restoration and to encourage wildlife, while black-horned cattle graze purposefully on the flood-plain meadows that have been there since medieval times. These cattle have been specially chosen to encourage back other wildlife and birds such as lapwings.
In the winter, the river breaks its banks on to the meadows, but in the summer the water levels sometimes fall too low. That is the first sign you have of the threats to this idyllic scene. The abstraction by the local water companies, particularly in summer, is a major problem. Sometimes in the smaller tributaries—some of which flow through my garden—you see the ruthlessness of nature as the water sinks and the stranded fish in the diminishing pools are devoured and devastated by the predatory herons.
Until recently, grazing cattle and sheep destroyed the banks of the rivers, but this has been arrested by the fencing and restrictions to allow vegetation to grow back on the banks. Intensive farming and fertilisers have damaged the draining patterns and powered nitrogen into the river, encouraging weed growth and undermining nature’s balance. We have been lucky, with the help of the Wildlife Trust, to push back some of these damaging tendencies. It is now an important pressure group against the extraction by water companies and for managing the land and agricultural practices so that they are adapted to restore the wildlife balance.
So what should we be championing as we go forward? First, we need to raise knowledge about and admiration for these remarkable chalk streams. They are jewels that are really worth preserving. They need the recognition and protection of an environmental equivalent of world heritage sites—they are world environmental sites. We need more recognition in local schools and pride in our local communities in these remarkable amenities. Often, although they live locally, people do not realise the wealth and potential that these chalk streams provide.
The environmental work of the European Union helped banish a number of pesticides and brought some control over fertilisers. But we still need to do more work on excessive nitrogen and more to counteract some of the damage from too-intensive farming. We want greater control of water abstraction. I find it frustrating that nobody in areas where water is abstracted knows what these agreements are. If local people knew the scale of these abstractions, they would be amazed and infuriated. We need publicity about what is being abstracted and when.
Where I live, there are huge water resources—artesian basins under the downlands—yet, even though we have very cheap water rates, we are still abstracting from the rivers in summer months, when the water levels are already lower.
We need more community schemes, not the Government just implementing measures. We need communities building from the bottom up to take control and respond, so that they themselves can see and benefit from the restoration work that they do.
Viscount Grey may have done much to promote interest in chalk streams 100 years ago. Rachel Carson’s book, Silent Spring, in the 1960s was the first sign to me of the destruction we were exacting on the delicate natural balance of areas such as chalk streams, which I am now delighted to play my part in trying to protect. We owe it to future generations to acclaim them and restore them to their former glory.