By Matthew Hatchwell
The character, landscape and history of Faversham have been influenced more by water and the town’s location at the convergence of fresh- and saltwater ecosystems than perhaps any other factor. The reliable flow of freshwater from the springs along this section of the north Kent coast was one of the reasons why early settlers made their homes here; proximity to the sea gave easy access to coastal and continental trade routes and bountiful supplies of fish and other seafood; and the streams drove watermills that were a source of food, employment, wealth, and – over the years – thousands of tons of gunpowder. The Faversham Oyster Fishery Company is one of the oldest companies in the world, and in the early 1700s the port was the most important in England for the export of wool to continental Europe.
Over the past century, that immediate economic dependence of the town on water has declined to the point where most of us take it for granted. That is changing now, however, in part thanks to public outrage at the discharges of raw and partially-treated sewage by Southern Water into Faversham Creek and Cooksditch, and dwindling water levels in the Westbrook and other local streams as the result of low rainfall over the winter and decades of overextraction from the chalk formations of the North Downs. Water levels this summer are lower than they’ve been for years.
Whether it is that outrage that is driving action, or simply an outpouring of volunteerism in the community, the articles that follow all show that people seizing opportunities, taking the initiative, and engaging politically can and do make a difference.
One of the areas where there’s scope for further action lies in using the law to challenge the status quo. A case in point is the ruling on nutrient neutrality by the European Court of Justice (ECJ) in 2018, upheld by the High Court in 2021, concerning the protection of conservation areas designated before the UK left the European Union. The Borough of Swale is one of 74 local planning authorities in England where designated protected areas are threatened by the excessive nutrients introduced to them by human activities. In protected areas where environmental quality has been identified as a problem by Natural England, new developments are only permitted to go ahead if they will cause “no likely significant adverse effect” on natural habitats and wild fauna and flora. Otherwise, a mitigation plan is required, for example the introduction of nature based solutions to reduce the levels of nutrients (in particular nitrates and phosphates) in water.
Despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, so far Natural England has not identified water quality in the Swale Special Protection Area (SPA) as being a problem that would trigger nutrient neutrality measures. The particular threat to the Swale SPA is an excess of nutrients carried into it from nearby wastewater treatment works and other sources including run-off from agricultural land. Excessive levels of nutrients in watercourses and waterbodies can be just as damaging to the environment as high levels of pesticides and other toxins, leading to eutrophication which is highly damaging to natural ecosystems. One of the main sources of nutrient overload is partially treated sewage from Combined Sewage Outfalls (CSOs) and treatment works like the one on Faversham Creek. On a rising tide, discharges from the CSOs and Faversham sewage works are washed up to Standard Quay and beyond into the tidal basin, and flushed out only slowly into the Swale leaving unsightly and foul-smelling residues in their wake.
Once in the Swale, excessive nutrients in the water smother native sea grass beds, leave shellfish inedible by humans, reduce oxygen levels in the water so that fewer fish can survive, prevent native oysters from re-establishing themselves, and discourage recreational use of coastal waters for swimming, boating, and other watersports.
Contrary to popular belief, responsibility for the release of partially treated wastewater into England’s inland and coastal waterways does not lie solely with private water companies like Southern Water. Much of the time they are simply complying with rules set and occasionally enforced by the Environment Agency as the regulatory agency acting on behalf of DEFRA. Between 2010 and 2021, the EA’s budget was cut by nearly two-thirds, along with its capacity to enforce all but the most blatant and extreme cases of pollution. Water companies are actively discouraged by the government’s water services watchdog, Ofwat, from investing to improve the quality of their discharges above the standards set for them by DEFRA and the EA.
Questions must now be asked of Natural England as well, as to why new housing developments are being permitted around Faversham despite leading to increased nutrient loads being carried into the Swale SPA. Inevitably, the construction of new houses results in an increase in the volume of wastewater to be treated by the Faversham sewage works, whose impacts on the SPA should be limited either by reducing the number of new
houses built, improving the quality of discharges, or a combination of the two. Taking the 2018 and 2021 ECJ and High Court rulings at face value, new developments in Swale should only be permitted if they do not increase the load of waterborne nutrients discharged into the Swale above 2018 levels.
You don’t need to be a cynic to suspect that the recent announcement by Secretary of State for the Environment, George Eustice, that the government wants to amend the Habitats Directive that underlies the ECJ and High Court decisions, is motivated by the desire not to improve the conservation status of UK protected areas but to remove potential obstacles to the activities of the Conservative Party’s housing developer buddies and donors.
The same chalk aquifer that provides a steady supply of ready-filtered drinking water for Faversham also feeds the dozens of springs that occur all along the north Kent coast between Seasalter and Sittingbourne. The fact that they flow from chalk means that they are categorised as chalk streams – of which there are officially less than 250 in the world, and 80 percent of them in England. Chalk streams are of global importance because of their rarity, and a top conservation priority for the British government, the Environment Agency and private water companies as they try to reduce the negative environmental impacts of both water supply and wastewater treatment.
Today even the Westbrook – whose original source was near Painter’s Forstal until its upper reaches dried up in the 1950s because of water abstraction and other pressures – is scarcely one kilometre long. Other chalk streams like Cooksditch and those that flow from the Clapgate and School Farm springs east of Faversham are even shorter, which is one of the reasons why they are not currently included on the UK national database of chalk rivers maintained by Natural England. The Friends of the Westbrook and Stonebridge Pond are working with partners to correct that so that our own chalk streams are given the recognition and protection they so badly need. An especially high priority is to stop the deliberate discharge by Southern Water, under storm conditions, of raw sewage into Cooksditch and Thorn Creek next to the sewage works.
Clapgate Spring east of Faversham feeds one of the many chalk streams along the north Kent coast. It is threatened by proposed housing development on nearby Abbey Fields. Photo: Matthew Hatchwell
SILT AND STONEBRIDGE POND
One of the results of the lower flow of water in the Westbrook since the 1950s, and other changes that have taken place along the stream over the past 100 years, is that the sediment that has accumulated in Stonebridge Pond and the channels that run through the nearby allotments is in danger of clogging several of the channels altogether. In places, water that was originally 2.5-3m deep is now just a few centimetres deep and kept flowing thanks only to the hard work of volunteers. “The Duckpond” as it is known to most local children is a much-loved feature of the town so discussions are underway about how it can be preserved in more or less its present state for the enjoyment of future generations. Removing all the accumulated silt would be very expensive, so expert advice is being sought about ways to maintain the pond and restore the flow of the Westbrook by other means. The process is being led by a group of partners including Faversham Town Council, Swale Borough Council, the South East Rivers Trust, the Friends of the Westbrook and Stonebridge Pond, the Faversham Society, Stonebridge Allotment Association, and the Environment Agency.
NOTE FOR CHILDREN: next time you feed the ducks at the Duckpond, please tell your parents to use the special duck food provided, or to buy their own, instead of using processed white bread which is bad for the ducks’ health! Thanks!
The three gauge boards installed along the Westbrook last winter provide important information for maintaining water levels in our valuable chalk streams. Photo: Matthew Hatchwell.
NATIONAL RECOGNITION FOR THE FRIENDS OF THE WESTBROOK AND STONEBRIDGE POND
Another reason to celebrate the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee on June 2nd was the announcement that the Friends of the Westbrook and Stonebridge Pond has been awarded the Queen’s Award for Voluntary Service. The QAVS is the highest award a local voluntary group can receive in the UK and is equivalent to an MBE.
The Friends of the Westbrook and Stonebridge Pond was formed in 2013 with the aim of bringing a neglected urban stream back to life for the benefit of the community and wildlife. Work has included clearing fly-tipping and litter, enhancing habitats, ecological surveying, water monitoring, improving eel passage, installing bird and bat boxes, planting trees, bulbs
and wildflower seeds, improving signage, fundraising, publicity and publication of a historic walking-tour of the area. The Friends also take part in consultations, including on local green spaces, water resources and quality, and work with others to promote the value of urban green spaces like the Westbrook and Stonebridge Pond, and the importance of volunteering for individuals and the community.
Anna Stonor, who helped set the group up in 2013 explained, “I’m over the moon that the Friends have received the Queen’s Award and it’s all thanks to our incredible and dedicated volunteers and the partners we work with. I have got so much out of my involvement in the group – an understanding of the heritage and ecology of the area, an appreciation of the value of water and green space and the benefits they bring to communities, an increased confidence in the power of volunteering as well as lots of new friends. I’m particularly proud that we managed to carry on with our work during the Covid pandemic as that was a time when the Westbrook’s value as a space for local people to enjoy really came to the fore. We are a very informal group and always welcome new members whatever their age or skills and whatever the time they have to give.
Friends of the Westbrook and Stonebridge Pond volunteers meet monthly to keep the stream flowing and litter-free. Sign-up. Photo: Matthew Hatchwell
EEL MONITORING ON FAVERSHAM CREEK
European eels are the only Critically Endangered species that lives and thrives around Faversham. They are also the most trafficked animal species in the world, with millions of illegally-caught glass eels smuggled every year from Europe to the Far East.
If you’re a regular walker on the marshes outside Faversham, around low tide in recent weeks you may have seen pairs of intrepid volunteers up to their elbows in water, mud and eel monitoring paraphernalia. They are all part of a three-month programme led and funded by the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) to study the arrival of young European eels from their hatching grounds thousands of miles away in the Sargasso Sea. The purpose of the monitoring is to understand the long-term trend in glass eel and elver arrivals in Europe, which fell by 95% or more between the 1980s and 2000s but may now be recovering slightly. ZSL also hopes to collect information on the ability of young eels to pass barriers that have been put in place to control coastal flooding but which, in some cases, have the unwanted side-effect of blocking the migration of eels to and from their breeding grounds.
The glass eels that arrive in the freshwater streams and ponds of north Kent every year have swum 4000 miles from the Sargasso Sea. Photo: Sarah Cuttle
An unexpected bonus of the eel monitoring is that volunteers report hearing both turtle doves and nightingales – two bird species whose UK populations have plummeted in recent decades – along the Creek. Like European eels, their presence within the parish is significant and to be celebrated.
The eel monitoring study will continue until the end of July and is a great example of how citizen science can contribute to wildlife conservation.
A team of volunteers has been monitoring the passage of glass eels through outfalls on Faversham Creek since May.
REASON TO BE CHEERFUL
A much-needed good news story in Faversham over the past two years has been the transformation of Cooksditch from an overgrown and clogged drainage ditch full of discarded rubbish into a free-flowing stream with lovingly-tended banks and attractive to wildlife including eels and kingfishers. Like the Westbrook and other local chalk streams, the water level in Cooksditch has suffered as the result of an unusually dry winter and spring, so reaching agreement with South East Water and other users to reduce longterm abstraction from the underlying chalk aquifer is vital. Just as urgent is for Southern Water to redesign the Combined Sewer Outflow that spews untreated raw sewage from the pumping station on Cyprus Road into Cooksditch every time the drains are overwhelmed after heavy rain.
The outstanding work done by the Cooksditch Stream volunteers, led by Lesley Seager, was recognised earlier this year in the form of an award by the Mayor of Faversham for contributions to the community.
Thanks to a team of dedicated volunteers, Cookditch has been transformed over the past two years from a clogged rubbish dump (Left) into the setting for a vibrant community garden (Right). Photos: Matthew Hatchwell and Hollie Brennan