Protecting our environment has never been more important, so what should we, as swimmers, be aware of? Suzie Wheway, environmental consultant and outdoor swimmer, shares the key environmental considerations when swimming outdoors.
As an inland outdoor swimmer in England there are very limited places we can swim without the threat of being asked to leave. One of the reasons that’s often used to exclude swimmers is the potential for negative impacts on the natural environment, but if we’re aware of the environment around us and how to protect it, we can swim responsibly whilst enjoying rather than damaging the natural world. Our planet is a delicate balanced system. Many people swim outdoors precisely because they want to immerse in nature and there is growing evidence of the benefits of being in nature for our physical and mental health. It is also being shown that nature exposure makes people more willing to adapt their lives to live more sustainably, when we have a connection to nature we are more likely to want to look after it.
Those beautiful natural environments swimmers love immersing in are also habitats to many other organisms. Without due care and consideration swimmers could cause damage to a sensitive ecosystem but this doesn’t have to be the case. By learning about the habitat you are swimming in it is possible to leave no trace and keep those habitats safe, not only for the organisms within the habitat but also for other swimmers, anglers, paddlers, the myriad of other people who may want to enjoy that spot too.
So why am I writing this? Do I have the knowledge of the environment to talk about this? Actually, I do a bit. I have always had a passion for the natural world. It has guided my travels, hobbies and subsequently my career. I worked as an Environmental Consultant for over ten years. Whilst my particular specialism within that role wasn’t ecology and habitat protection, I worked with ecologists on a daily basis. I watched their work patterns throughout the year change, integrated their work into the projects I managed and more importantly they’re now good friends. With their help I’ve pulled something together here that should give swimmers the knowledge they need to be able to swim sensitively with the environment in mind. Please note the information below relates to freshwater habitats only as these are the places where environmental impacts are often used as a means to restrict access for water users.
I would love for this to be a quick guide on dos and don’ts but much like most things in life it’s not that simple. Our natural world is complex. It changes from site to site. What you might need to look out for in one stretch of river may be completely different to what you need to look out for in a stretch of the same river five miles downstream. Assessing your environment and the potential impacts you could have is a site by site activity. You need to learn about the spots you’re visiting.
However, there are common things to consider:
This can be the bank directly by the water as well as extending as far as your walk to your water access point. Are you eroding the bank where you’re getting in? Not only could this alter habitats for mammals and breeding birds but it could also wash in sediment which may affect species within the water. Try and avoid muddy, easily damaged water entry points.
Think about where you’re walking. Are swimmer numbers severely eroding or widening an existing footpath? Are you trampling vegetation by walking through a wooded area to the water? Is there another way you could access that water without causing harm to an existing habitat? If an area is getting a lot of footfall that it just can’t cope with maybe think about changing where you’re swimming or finding a new access point and allowing the damaged area to recover.
Dry stone walls and hedges around many water bodies can be important habitats for small mammals, amphibians, birds and plant life. Try and avoid damaging them by climbing over them unless there are well established access points such as stiles.
Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI). I’ve seen lots of debate about these sites recently. Don’t swim in them, do swim in them. By and large they’re poorly understood by the general public.
An SSSI is a formal conservation designation determined by Natural England. They can be applied to areas with scientific value relating to wildlife, geology and landform. The designation sometimes restricts what activities can take place within that area. However, it’s important to note that these designations can be allocated for just one item, which can be easily avoided, or to cover a whole habitat, which can be harder to avoid any damage to. An SSSI designation doesn’t necessarily mean you shouldn’t swim at that location but you should take due care based on what the designation is for.
For example, there are organised open water swimming venues which operate on sites with SSSI designations. They operate there because they are managed to ensure that any potential for impact to the SSSI is minimised.
SSSI designations are often not signed so you may find yourself swimming somewhere that is an SSSI but be entirely unaware. You can check for SSSI and other nature conservation designations on the DEFRA magic map by ticking the “designations” box in the menu. Use the “i” icon at the top to bring up information on individual locations. Take a look through the citations and operations requiring Natural England’s consent to give you an idea of what is and isn’t appropriate activity.
Like SSSIs, national and local nature reserves are designated for a variety of different reasons, including wildlife, geology and habitat. Unlike SSSIs which can be on private land used for many other activities, Nature Reserves are usually owned and managed specifically for wildlife. There are often signs explaining this and you can look them up on the MAGIC map, as for SSSIs, and research online or locally to find out more about them, including asking relevant people or organisations, to avoid any action that could harm the nature that is being protected.
In a lot of cases this may mean not swimming in nature reserves however, as with all swimming spots, this is something that you need to consider on a site by site basis. For example in the East of England and in other areas some reserves are designated for heathland, grassland or fen or marshland, rather than any aspect of the rivers and water bodies. In some large water bodies there are often zoned areas, for example some of the bigger gravel pits in several parts of the country have areas reserved for nature and areas with water sports and other activities.
Much as the water temperature changes with the seasons so too do the habitats in our favourite swim locations. Winter tends to be a period of quiet, Spring and Summer a time of activity. With each of the items considered below there are certain times of year to be more conscious of than others. Please note any timeframes below are for guidance only, actual dates will vary by location, weather at the time (think April 2020 vs April 2021) and latitude (the south coast of England warms up earlier than the north Coast of Scotland!).
As a rule fish will be far more scared of a swimmer than a swimmer is of them. They will swim away from you and hide, yes even the big Pike. The really important thing to consider is the part of the fish life cycle that isn’t mobile. Spawning fish and their subsequent eggs. Salmon, trout and similar fish spawn from late autumn into winter. Laying their eggs in cobble and gravel beds in well oxygenated, moving waters. Those eggs will hatch in the spring into juvenile fish.
Coarse fish such as Pike, Tench and Carp spawn from Spring into Summer with eggs hatching from a few days to weeks later depending on the species. Some coarse fish deposit their eggs in gravels, others on vegetation. The juvenile fish may then shelter from predators in vegetation or shallow waters. The rare and protected river lamprey lays eggs in clean sandy gravels and juveniles live in silty mud at the margins of rivers.
For any of these species to successfully complete their life cycle the area where their eggs and juveniles live need to be disturbed as little as possible. That doesn’t mean you can’t swim but should be mindful to avoid disturbing gravel beds as much as possible on entry and avoid stirring up silt as this can smother eggs. Ideally enter the water gently and keep feet off the bed of the river, lake or reservoir as much as possible.
Birdlife around the water is one of the many reasons I enjoy wild swimming. We get substantial flocks of geese over winter at one of my regular spots and in the spring and summer I’m often followed by an inquisitive pair of great crested grebes. I occasionally spot the flash of a kingfisher too.
We need to respect our avian friends’ habitats. During bird breeding season (generally March to August in the UK) it’s even more important to respect their space and keep clear of potential nesting sites (yes, I know it’s tempting to see a glimpse of newly hatched chicks but please don’t). Water margins, fallen wood, sandy banks, trees, cliffs, islands, dunes, shingle are all potential nesting sites.
Noise, splashing and physical disturbance can all have an impact and may lead to adults abandoning nests. Be mindful and keep eyes open for activity. If birds are happy sharing the water they’ll happily bob along with you as you swim but don’t approach them. The larger waterfowl (Geese and Swans) can also be aggressive when they have young and may chase you away.
A wide range of species that live in and around the water, some spend all of their life in water whilst others spend only a portion of their life cycle submerged. These important creatures provide food to those higher up the food chain and act as indicator species, their presence signalling the health or not of our waterways. They are so varied there are no particular seasons to be cautious of, though the emergence of mayflies is quite a sight to behold. Their preferred habitats are varied though many use vegetation to lay eggs and take shelter amongst. Avoiding disturbance to vegetation, rocks and the bed of the waterway you are swimming in will help support invertebrate species.
Many amphibians only spend large amounts of time in water during breeding season. Look out for frog and toad spawn and tadpoles anytime from March to June. Their presence is highly influenced by temperature so will vary from year to year in the same locations. Avoid touching any spawn you come across.
There are a number of mammals to be found around the waters edge, water voles and otters to name just two. Water voles are a protected species and live in sandy and muddy banks by the water’s edge. Bank erosion and disturbance is a key contributing factor to their decline. If you spot small burrows in the banks where you’re entering the water please try and find somewhere else to enter and make others aware of the activity. Avoid disturbing any other wild animals or livestock as well, and keep your distance from them.
Important in their own right, plants support good water quality, provide nesting areas and shelter for many fish and invertebrates and some provide forage for pollinators. Sediments stirred up from excessive movement on a river or lake bed can smother plant life. Keep well away from plants if you can, try not to disturb them and once you’re in the water try and keep your feet off the bottom to prevent stirring up excess sediment.
Protect woodland around swim spots, the dead vegetation and wood as well as the living. It all provides important habitats.
So, with the above in mind, what are the best ways you can enjoy your natural surroundings on a swim whilst still protecting the environment?