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NatureNature Studies

Nature Studies

Being an inveterate river-lover, one of the aspects of the Dorset landscape which most struck me when I first started visiting the county, years ago, was the chalk streams. These are the small rivers found in the chalk downland landscapes of southern England and not many other places (though there are some in Normandy). They have a good claim to be the loveliest rivers in the world, not least because their water, filtered by the underlying chalk through which it rises, is the purest to be found anywhere—so limpid and pristine that it is often described as ‘gin clear’. Furthermore, they are abounding in wildlife, with a profusion of aquatic wild flowers, and copious invertebrate life which allows their trout to grow fat, which is why they are beloved of anglers.
Dorset is rich in chalk streams, its main ones being the Frome and the Piddle (although not the Stour), and since we moved to the county I have been looking at them ever more closely. There are a whole host of smaller chalk watercourses which include the Wraxall, the Sydling, the Cerne, the Devil’s Brook, the Tarrant and the Allen. With some, the name seems to be in doubt—what do we call the river which runs through Milborne St Andrew? It eventually becomes the Bere Stream at Bere Regis, where it is substantial, but higher up its identity seems to be uncertain. And some of the smaller ones seem to have no name at all, such as the stream which flows from Up Cerne to join the Cerne above Cerne Abbas, or the one which runs down from Wynford Eagle to join the River Hooke at Maiden Newton. Nameless Dorset rivers. I am fascinated by them.
In recent months, however, my attention has been most focused on another species of Dorset chalk stream—the winterbournes, a winterbourne being a river which may run dry in summer, only to start flowing again when the winter rains come. In our village there are three tiny unnamed chalk streams which in the severe drought last year dried up completely, though now they are full again. Yet some of the larger rivers named above are also winterbournes, the Tarrant being a spectacular example. In the parching heat of last summer the Tarrant simply died: on September 9 I drove the length of the river from its confluence with the Stour at Tarrant Crawford to where it crosses the A354 at Tarrant Hinton, and it was dry as a bone, unutterably sad; there was grass growing out of its bed. And yet when I went back to Tarrant Hinton on January 16 last, its water was thundering underneath its bridge, and I rejoiced.
The winterbournes each year offer a warning, of just how vulnerable chalk streams can be to the level of the water in the underground reservoir supporting them, the aquifer—something which will be of growing concern with the increasing droughts expected from climate change in the years to come. And it is in this context that I have been thinking about the proposed new settlement of 4,000 houses in the countryside just north of Dorchester, put forward by a private consortium and being considered by Dorset council. There is fierce local opposition to this scheme, much of it on landscape grounds, and I am very sympathetic to that: the lovely, gentle panorama of the Dorchester water meadows, the incomparable setting of the north of the town from Charminster to Stinsford, painted so vividly by Thomas Hardy’s artist friend, Henry Joseph Moule, will be permanently impaired.
But what effect will there also be on the water supply for the Piddle, the Frome, the Cerne and all the rest, if you plonk on top of the aquifer supplying them a completely new settlement of perhaps 10,000 people with all their water demands? If you dig out the response to Dorset council’s proposal from Wessex Water, you will find that on hydrological grounds, the company feels this development is in the wrong place and “strongly objects” to the site being chosen.
Of course people need somewhere to live, and no-one denies that in Britain we need more houses. But the notion of a development being simply in the wrong place is a real one. Consider: to fight climate change, we desperately need more renewable energy, from sources such as wind farms—it is an absolute priority.
But would you sanction the siting of a windfarm next to Stonehenge?

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