By Dr Pascale Nicolet & Hannah Worker
With continued pressures on the freshwater environment and limited resources, how do we prioritise conservation efforts to ensure the best gains can be achieve for freshwater biodiversity and reverse the decline of the freshwater environment?
Freshwater Habitats Trust has been working with national freshwater species and habitats experts to address this issue through the development of the Important Freshwater Areas (IFA) Concept. An evidence-driven and scalable approach to underpin the practical delivery of freshwater conservation projects through the identification of locations of regional or national importance for freshwater biodiversity.
This work supports the restoration of natural processes in river catchments: understanding where rare or special species live supports better decision making, and helps avoid potential conflicts between different priorities at catchment scale. More information the importance of natural ecosystem function for managing and restoring freshwater habitats can be found in the CaBA Biodiversity Pack.
At the heart of the IFA concept is the key principle that to stem the decline in freshwater biodiversity and prevent further extinctions of freshwater species, it is essential that we protect the remaining high quality habitats, the Important Freshwater Areas (IFAs), and strategically restore and create new high quality habitats to extend these areas, and so improve connectivity and resilience.
Analysis of the River Thame Catchment
Identification of the Important Freshwater Areas requires the collection, collation and analysis of existing data of both species (freshwater ‘Species of Conservation Concern’, of which there are about 1,000 nationally) and habitats of importance (e.g. Priority Habitats). The IFA are identified against a set of criteria and, depending on the data available, considerable expert knowledge. The identification method is still being trialled at different geographical scales, and the River Thame catchment is only the second river catchment in the UK with an IFA analysis to underpin conservation work.
Within the River Thame Catchment, 10 locations were identified as Important Freshwater Areas at the catchment scale (these are called ‘catchment IFAs’). Thame catchment IFAs include a wide range of freshwater habitats: the River Thame and its floodplain, areas of semi-natural woodland with clean water ponds, gravel pit lakes, chalk streams and fen habitat.
An additional four locations were identified as potential IFAs where there was insufficient data, but further survey may elevate them to full IFA status in the future.
This first IFA analysis for the River Thame Catchment provides an initial baseline for freshwaters in the River Thame Catchment, including all waters. It highlights:
Based on the finding of the IFA analysis, to improve the water environment of the River Thame catchment in the short term and stem wildlife decline, we need to focus on creating new clean water habitats and floodplain mosaics in and around IFAs, increasing landscape connectivity and the extent of high quality freshwater habitats. A carefully thought out programme of species reintroduction and/or translocation should be considered at newly created or managed sites to restore catchment diversity and expand existing freshwater wildlife populations.
There are excellent opportunities to restore freshwater habitats and their associated wildlife throughout the River Thame Catchment, in particular along much of the length of the River Thame on the floodplain corridor. The wide floodplain, of low value for farming because of flooding, and the critical support of many large and small landowners along the river corridor, are both key elements to support the development of successful large-scale restoration projects. The River Thame Conservation Trust, in collaboration with the Freshwater Habitats Trust, The Environment Agency and others partners, has already started this work, with demonstration sites showing a range of habitat creation and management activities around Waddesdon and Waterstock, and through improved fish passage in the catchment.
To see the report on the Thame catchment IFAs visit the RTCT IFA page.
For more information on the IFA concept and to see the results of analysis in other areas please visit: www.freshwaterhabitats.org.uk/research/important-freshwater-areas
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