Rivers as Wildlife Habitats

The natural features found in rivers and streams support a diverse range of plants and animals. Riffles and pools are important habitats for a wide range of aquatic species, and marginal and bankside vegetation support an array of wild flowers and animals. Rivers and streams often also provide a wildlife corridor between fragmented habitats in farmed and urban areas.

In their natural state, rivers are dynamic systems continually modifying their form. However, in many cases their ability to rejuvenate and create new habitat has been reduced or arrested by flood defence structures and impoundments, and many of the rivers in the UK have been physically modified in some way to aid drainage or improve navigation. Also, flow regulation has altered patterns of sediment transport and nutrient exchange in river systems. Such activities have resulted in changes in the frequency and magnitude of flooding, altering seasonal patterns of flows with associated changes in water quality.

Biodiversity Action Plan

The UK Biodiversity Action Plan (UKBAP) was published in 1994 and was the UK Government’s response to signing the Convention on Biological Diversity at the 1992 Rio de Janeiro Earth Summit. The UK was the first country to produce a national biodiversity action plan and the UKBAP describes the biological resources of the UK and provides detailed plans for conservation of these resources. In 1998 devolution led the four countries in the UK (England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales) to develop their own country strategies for biodiversity and the environment.

In October 2010, 192 governments and the EU come together in Nagoya, Aichi Prefecture, Japan to reach an agreement to take action to halt the global declines of biodiversity. The resulting Strategic Plan for Biodiversity 2011 – 2020, with its 5 strategic goals and 20 new global “Aichi” targets set a new vision and direction. In July 2012 Defra and the devolved administrations jointly published the new UK Post-2010 Biodiversity Framework (http://jncc.defra.gov.uk/page-6189). This framework succeeds the UKBAP and identifies the activities required to complement the countries’ biodiversity strategies in achieving the targets.

Links to the individual UK country strategies:

England: Government’s Biodiversity 2020 Strategy

Northern Ireland: Biodiversity Strategy for Northern Ireland to 2020

Scotland: Scottish Biodiversity Strategy

The original strategy – Scotlandメs Biodiversity: Itメs in Your Hands – was published in 2004. In 2013, it was supplemented by the 2020 Challenge for Scotlandメs Biodiversity. The two documents together now constitute the Scottish Biodiversity Strategy.

Scotlandメs Biodiversity: Itメs in Your Hands

2020 Challenge for Scotland’s Biodiversity: A Strategy for the conservation and enhancement of biodiversity in Scotland

Wales: Environment Strategy for Wales

Rivers and Flooding

There is a great deal of interest in reports of river flooding since, in many cases, the results can lead to serious damage to property and possessions and in others leading to loss of life and livelihoods. The problem is made worse by peoples’ tendency to live and work on floodplains, adjacent to rivers, which are the natural recipient of flood water at times of high rainfall.
The effect of urbanisation in these areas has been an important factor in exacerbating the effect of flood events, leading to a greater potential for flood damage on many rivers. In addition, there is a growing debate about whether flooding is increasing in frequency and intensity as the result of changes in climate.

The winter of 2013-2014 was the wettest on record for England and Wales in a rainfall series from 1766.



This led to very serious flooding across southern England. This flooding, whilst extensive, was considerably less than the 1953 event due to the warning, response and flood defences put in place by the Environment Agency and others since 1953

The winter floods of 2015/16 were even more extreme. The November to January period was the wettest three-month sequence in the UK rainfall series – which begins in 1910.

The winter floods of 2015/2016 in the UK; a review


30 years of the National Hydrological Monitoring Programme: Documenting and analysing the hydrological conditions of the UK  -
16 January 2019


Flood defence measures have been used over many centuries as a means of combating floods by the construction of flood banks, realigning river sections and dredging. In the past, however, there have been many cases where these installations and engineered changes to the natural river courses have resulted in rivers becoming more efficient drainage channels, with little thought to their environmental impact.

Increasingly nowadays the emphasis is to engineer flood defence measures which are more environmentally sensitive. These allow, where possible, natural flooding of flood plains and avoiding building development where flooding may be a problem, whilst accepting that engineered defences will be important for urban areas where property and livelihoods need to be protected.
There is no single body responsible for managing flood risk in the UK because of the role of the devolved administrations in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales.

The four regulatory bodies in the UK that have operational responsibility for managing flood risk within their administrations are (the Environment Agency (EA) in England, Natural Resources Wales (NRW), Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA) and Northern Ireland Protection Agency (NIEA).

The UK Environment Agencies in have an important role in providing warnings about the risks of flooding. The following websites provides information on managing flood risk and plans to tackle flooding can be found at:



Rivers and Water Supply

In England and Wales, two-thirds of drinking water comes from surface water, including reservoirs, lakes and rivers, and the remaining third from groundwater. In Scotland 84% comes from surface waters and 16% from groundwater and in Northern Ireland 99.4% from surface waters and 0.6% from Groundwater. These figures obviously reflecting the differing geology of each part of the British Isles.

River water quality is much more variable than reservoir water as flows vary during the year and rivers are susceptible to pollution from a wide variety of sources both point source and diffuse sources.

Water is treated at water treatment works before flowing through water mains, sometimes over considerable distances, to meet the nation’s needs. (See the accompanying Information Note on Water Treatment and Supply).

During treatment, chemicals are added which bind small pieces of debris in the water together to form a blanket of sediment in the settlement tanks. As the water passes through the blanket it removes further particles. A filtration process then removes any remaining particles in the water. Finally, the water is disinfected to ensure a safe and hygienic product. Samples are taken at each stage of treatment and within the distribution system to ensure a wholesome supply.

Further information on the water supply cycle is contained in the accompanying Information Notes on Lakes and Reservoirs, and The Hydrological Cycle.

Transboundary Rivers 

Unlike most other surface water bodies, rivers can flow across both national and international boundaries. More than half of the 31 rivers in the EU with a total watershed area of 50,000 km2 have transboundary river basins.

In addition, many small and medium-size water bodies cross the borders of two and more countries.

The 1992 Helsinki Convention on the ‘Protection and Use of Transboundary Waters and International Lakes’ covers:

  • Transboundary water monitoring and assessment
  • Evaluation of measures on mitigation, elimination and reduction of adverse transboundary impact
  • Information exchange between riparian countries and public awareness on results of water and effluents sampling.

To implement the provisions of the Helsinki Convention, guidelines on transboundary water monitoring and assessment were developed by the UN Economic Commission for Europe Task Force on Monitoring and Assessment. The Guidelines can be found at:


The Water Convention: Responding to Global Water Challenges (United Nations 2018)


The Convention established the river basin as the unit of management and requested that Parties identify the catchments or sub-catchments which were subject to cooperation. The fundamentals of a river basin approach directed to ecosystem-based objectives are shared with the Water Framework Directive and influenced its development alongside experience within those developed for individual river basins in Europe, such as the Convention on the protection of the Rhine.

Whilst the Water Framework Directive draws extensively on the general requirements of the Convention, such as ecosystem objectives and integrated river basin management, it goes significantly further than the Convention. The two main areas are:

The Danube is an example of a major transboundary watercourse.  It is the second-longest river in Europe. Originating in Germany, the Danube flows southeast for 2,860 km (1,780 mi), passing through or touching the borders of 9 other countries, Austria, Slovakia, Hungary, Croatia, Serbia, Montenegro, Romania, Bulgaria, Moldavia and Ukraine before emptying into the Black Sea through a large swampy delta, that is an important natural reserve.

A map of the Danube Basin is available at:

The European Rivers Network website lists and illustrates all river basins across Europe and can be found at:

Details of an international environmental research project called ‘Mantra East’ to analyse and develop strategic planning methodologies and scientific tools for the management of transboundary water basins in Europe is available at:

This project ran from February 2001 to January 2004.

Rivers and the Water Framework Directive

In the UK, the Water Framework Directive (WFD) builds on the considerable amount of work being undertaken by the Environment Agency (EA) in England, the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA) in Scotland, Natural Resources Wales (NRW) in Wales and the Environment and Heritage Service (EHNI) in Northern Ireland. Together with large financial investment by the water utilities (amounting in England and Wales to over £111 billion between 1990 and 2015) and better controls on agricultural and industrial activities, this has resulted in a significant improvement in the quality of rivers over the last decade.

The Directive adopts an integrated approach to the protection, improvement and sustainable use of rivers, lakes, groundwater, estuaries and coastal waters.  It involves two key approaches in the way the water environment is managed across the European Community.

  • The first relates to the types of environmental objectives that must be delivered. These apply to all surface waters
  • The second is the use of a river basin management planning system.

See the accompanying Information Notes on the Water Framework Directive for more detail on the Directive and how it is implemented.

If the environmental objectives specified by the Directive are achieved, then rivers across the EU will be clean and healthy. They will sustain diverse and healthy ecosystems and support a wide variety of water activities including recreation and fishing. Additional benefits include:

  • Abstractions from and discharges to rivers will neither damage the environment nor threaten human health
  • Pollution incidents will have been prevented at source through more effective control procedures
  • The causes of water pollution and the quantities of chemicals entering rivers will have been greatly reduced
  • Rivers will sustain a diverse variety of habitats and wildlife and be regarded as a valuable resource and recreational and amenity asset.

River Basin Management

Water management within the Water Framework Directive is based on River Basin Districts (RBD). These are made up of both river basins and associated groundwater and coastal waters.
All water bodies (rivers, lakes, canals, gravel pits, estuaries and coastal waters) within that district will be included.

River Basin Management Plans (RBMPs) set out for each district, the:

  • state of the water environment
  • pressures affecting the water environment
  • objectives for protecting and improving the water environment
  • actions or measures needed to achieve the objectives

Because water and land resources are closely linked, they also inform decisions on land-use planning.

There are 11 river basin districts in England and Wales:

Seven of these river basin districts are managed wholly by the Environment Agency and Natural Resources Wales (NRW) manage the Western Wales river basin district. The Environment Agency and NRW jointly manage the Severn and Dee river basin districts.

The Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA) manages the Scotland River Basin District and together with the Environment Agency jointly manage the Solway Tweed river basin district.

In Ireland eight RBDs have been identified on the island of Ireland for the purpose of implementing the Directive.  Three of these are shared with Northern Ireland (Shannon, Neagh Bann, and North Western), four RBDs are wholly within the Republic (Eastern, South Eastern, South Western and Western) and one is wholly within Northern Ireland (North Eastern).

For each RBD there is a statutory requirement to produce and regularly review a River Basin Management Plan.  The EA is the competent authority responsible for the implementation of the WFD in England and Wales, SEPA in Scotland, NRW for Wales, the EHNI for Northern Ireland and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for Republic of Ireland.   They will:

  • Map the river basins and assess the quality of the water
  • Set up environmental monitoring programmes
  • Define what will be done to meet objectives
  • Implement a river basin pilots for testing guidance and planning

See the accompanying Information Notes on the Water Framework Directive.


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