How you can help save Britain’s rivers by becoming a citizen scientist

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How you can help save Britain's rivers by becoming a citizen scientist


Cleaning up the Thames in London

Thames21

Are you concerned about the state of the UK’s waterways? Would you like to do your part to improve them? As part of New Scientist’s Save Britain’s Rivers campaign, we’ve rounded up the most interesting citizen science projects that share our ambitions to protect and restore these vital waters. Here’s how you can help.

Save Britain's rivers

Spot insects

RiverFly is a network of scientists, conservationists and organisations that helps people monitor invertebrate numbers in their local rivers. Volunteers are trained to collect water samples from rivers and count the different types of insect life they encounter. Each group is supervised by a project leader and the data is used by the UK’s Environment Agency to get a better understanding of how invertebrates are faring in rivers across the UK. About 300 volunteers monitor insects around the country in this way each month, says Trine Bregstein at Riverfly.

You can take part by going to the Riverfly website to find out when your local rivers trust is holding its next one-day Riverfly training session, which will usually be free. “You don’t have to be an entomologist, an ecologist or hold a PhD to do this,” says Bregstein. “Anyone can do it.”

Get physical

Similar to RiverFly, the Modular River Physical Survey (MoRPh) is a rigorous monitoring programme that requires a one-day training session for members of the public to get involved. But unlike RiverFly, the project is focused on monitoring the physical habitat of the river, says Angela Gurnell at MoRPh.

“You can’t understand ecological data from rivers if you don’t understand the physical habitat,” says Gurnell. “That’s why we started this survey.”

The project has been fully running for four years now and it aims to get citizen scientists to monitor the features of their local rivers, says Gurnell. This can include analysing the water flow pattern and the types of vegetation found on riverbanks, she says.

People can take part in surveys throughout the UK, says Gurnell. Visit the MoRPh website to find the next available training session near you.

Volunteers clearing the Hogsmill river, a tributary of the Thames, in London

AP Photo/Matt Dunham/Alamy

Take to the Thames

The charity Thames21 has been spearheading citizen science projects along the river Thames for several years now. For example, the team surveyed dragonfly numbers on Crane Park Island in Twickenham, London, in May. The island is a local nature reserve made up of ponds, reed beds and woodland.

Thames21 is currently organising a litter study at Limekiln Dock in East London for 28 June. Participants will categorise the litter they find into various types, such as that derived from sewage, to identify the biggest issues on the Thames.

This event follows the charity’s PlasticBlitz initiative earlier this month, in which it asked groups to help clear up plastic from the banks of their local rivers in London. Last year, 500 volunteers took part in the same initiative and collected 14,000 plastic items. “The worst offenders were wet wipes,” says Liz Gyekye at Thames21.

All upcoming events are listed on the group’s website. Gyekye says focusing on your local environment is a good way to have a positive impact. “Climate change can sometimes feel too big an issue to grapple with,” she says. “But helping to clean and protect your local river can produce visible results.”

Go with the flow

The DRYRivERS app aims to help researchers document and study rivers around the world that are drying out due to climate change. According to the team behind it, 50 per cent of the global river network has drying channels.

Studies suggest that climate change could have a major impact on fish that rely on connected river networks with freely flowing water. The app is simple to use and asks people to take pictures of their local river and report whether water is flowing or not.

Campaigners against sewage pollution in Edinburgh, UK

Arch White/Alamy

Campaign for clean swimming

Despite people across the country enjoying a dip in their local river, just three stretches of river in England have been given official bathing status by the UK government. This means that only these rivers are regularly monitored for E. coli and intestinal enterococci levels during the summer by the UK’s Environment Agency. High levels of these bacteria in water have been linked to diarrhoea and urinary tract infections.

In recent years, however, several campaigns have been launched in an effort to gain bathing status for more rivers. While citizen science isn’t required for this, many of the successful bathing status campaigns have taken water samples to highlight how important it is that water quality is regularly monitored. You can reach out to Surfers Against Sewage, a charity that is supporting many of these projects, to discover your local campaign group and get involved.

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