Claire Perry backs ARK in its river rescue mission for the endangered Kennet

Written by Gerald Isaaman on .

She zipped up her wellies and waded into the water for  a morning paddle, as the cameras clicked and the experts watched.

There may have been an odd fish here , a black coot there and some elegantly growing yellow irisis on the bankside.

But what Claire Perry, Marlborough’s 47-year-old Tory MP, was witnessing was one of England’s rare chalk streams in trouble, the River Kennet at a trickle, its low water level at danger point.

And though she praised the work of Action River Kennet in transforming the kilometre-long section of the river as it flows under Stonebridge Lane bridge, in Marlborough, which she visited on Friday, the signals are at red.

In fact growing numbers of people are worried about the dual concerns of continued massive water extraction by Thames Water at Axford, to serve Swindon’s residents, and the dramatic lack of rain to maintain the river flow.

Looking at the 15-acre Stonebridge Meadow project, a combined operation with Marlborough Town Council, Mrs Perry declared: “What is being been done here is really impressive, quite wonderful.

“Rivers are incredible natural resources. And chalk streams like the Kennet are rather rare. We have them only here, in New Zealand and in northern France.”

But she warned: “The trouble is that the abstraction doesn’t change, no matter what is happening to the rivers. It’s just an extraordinary situation. I just think we have a huge timing problem.

“We may be running too late and a lot of damage can be done to the river. The Kennet could be dry by the summer.”

Trained geographer Charlotte Hitchmough, the director of ARK, who lives at Manton, pointed out that the current situation matched the period that preceded the 1976 drought.

“The river does bounce back but it takes a long time to do so. And flowers like the white water crowfoot – a sea of them is a classic scene for chalk streams – are only getting going if you have a strong flow during the winter. So there’s nothing on which the fish can feed.

“And so the problem works its way up the food chain. The lack of flowers is a warning sign. Even water crayfish are affected. They are such strong animals that if there is nothing else to eat they will start eating each other.”

That means there is no chance of ARK re-stocking the river and introducing fishing to youngsters while so much water is hijacked elsewhere.

Mrs Perry, who admitted that she had once caught a trout – in Colorado – does have a direct interest in rivers, as her home outside Salisbury is on the banks of the River Ebble, which sometimes floods her garden.

Now she has joined forces with a group of MPs with similar river problems in their constituencies. They are lobbying nearby Newbury MP Richard Benyon, the Defra minister, who has promised a White Paper on dealing with water problems, especially in light of climate change.

“I think it will come early autumn,” said Mrs Perry. “There is lots and lots of proper thinking going on in his department. They want to do it right and not just make platitudinous noises.

“He really cares about this problem. So our group of MPs is working really hard to say this is a common problem for all of us and needs to be tackled.”

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