Riverfly Partnership Conference

Jane Prady, RRC Science & Technical Support Officer

Today I attended the 5th National Riverfly Partnership Conference. The conference got postponed in 2020 and was due to be held at the Natural History Museum in London this year. Then, due to train strikes potentially disrupting travel, it was moved online. As a relatively new member of staff, this is the first conference I have attended on behalf of the RRC, and also the first conference I have ever attended virtually!

Steve Brooks (Co-Chair of Riverfly Partnership) introduced the conference, and opened by stating the growing importance of citizen science at a time when Environment Agency resources have been stretched and pollution incidents are increasingly making the headlines. Steve Brooks and Simon Johnson (Freshwater Biological Association) chaired the conference.

The morning session focussed on new developments in the Anglers’ Riverfly Monitoring Initiative (ARMI), including the Extended Riverfly and Urban Riverfly monitoring. Tamsin Appleton (Environment Agency) emphasized how the Environment Agency is embracing citizen science and spoke about the importance of people being engaged with their rivers.

John Davy-Bowker (Freshwater Biological Association) and Angus Menzies (Dorset Wildlife Trust) shared information about the Extended Riverfly Scheme. The Extended Riverfly Scheme incorporates 33 groups of freshwater macroinvertebrates, originally derived from the RIVPACS database and whittled down to a more manageable number, with recognisably characteristics, to allow identification in a tray on a riverbank. It incorporates the same 8 groups from the original Anglers’ Riverfly Monitoring Initiative (ARMI), so that ARMI scores can be back derived.

Extended Riverfly came about to provide more detailed data, and to nurture the growing interest and enthusiasm of volunteers already involved with ARMI who were keen to record more of the taxa they were seeing in samples. It is also more sensitive so can pick up milder levels of stress in rivers. Development of the Extended Riverfly began in 2014, and the final 33 groups were settled upon in 2019. Since then, several one-day train-the-trainer events have taken place.

A new YouTube Channel has been established called Freshwater Invertebrates, with over 90 useful videos available to aid citizen scientists in identifying macroinvertebrates: https://www.youtube.com/@freshwaterinvertebrates/videos.

Hard copy charts for the Extended Riverfly can be obtained from the Freshwater Biological Society website – they are concise and include clear photographs, as well as ‘smileys’ (smiley face icons) which summarise each group’s tolerance to nutrients, acidity, sediment and slow flow.

Groups with prior experience surveying the ARMI 8, may like to complete further training and begin conducting the Extended Riverfly – though more time consuming, existing monitors already familiar with the 8 ARMI groups will soon be able to identify the 33 groups just as comfortably.

Nicola Edgar (Environment Agency) and Jess Andrews (Environment Agency) then introduced another alternative to ARMI – the Urban Riverly monitoring scheme. Despite the name, Urban Riverfly monitoring is not just for urban areas – it is useful in any area where low scores from the original ARMI are prevalent, such as those with degraded rivers.

Urban Riverfly came about after volunteer engagement dropped, mostly in urban areas where citizen scientists were repeatedly getting low scores, or not finding many of the original 8 groups.

Urban Riverfly allows even low scoring sites to see improvements (or declines) in river condition, by incorporating 6 more pollution-tolerant groups of macroinvertebrates (in addition to the original ARMI 8). A separate Urban Riverfly hard-copy ID guide is available. To attend Urban Riverfly training, no previous citizen science or macroinvertebrate ID experience is required.

Next Louise Lavictoire (Freshwater Biological Association and co-chair RP) presented the new developments and future plans of the Riverfly Partnership. Riverfly now has 60 regional hubs, 3021 sampling sites and around 1000 active volunteers. Though there was a drop off in citizen science volunteers due to COVID, numbers are now recovering.

Funding of £330,000 over 3 years has been secured from the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation. This allows long-term financial resilience and sustainability, as well as a roll out of monitoring and training, including investment in Wales and Scotland.

The introduction of Extended and Urban Riverfly are two of the ways Riverfly is growing and expanding. ARMI results remain important though and ARMI will continue to be carried out. ARMI scores will still be used to set the trigger levels. Trigger level scores act as a threshold below which pollution events are indicated.

Another key update from the last 18 months was that Cartographer will replace the existing database – making data much easier to input, access and interpret. Any data entered on the old database between now and when it is closed down, will be transferred across.

Joe Pecorelli (Zoological Society of London) talked about Outfall Safari. In London 1-5% of properties have misconnected plumbing and there is a need to develop procedures and protocols to identify polluted surface water outfalls. This is relevant in areas which have separate drainage systems for rain and foul waste – where misconnections cause the rainwater drainage to become contaminated with foul waste.

It was emphasized that it is not just misconnections that cause problems. Complications also arise from blockages; abuse of surface water drains; “network issues” (e.g. cross connections and poorly designed assets); and under investment/ lack of drainage capacity. Outfall Safari increases awareness and the ability for communities to monitor their local rivers – alerting water companies to problem areas where they need to follow-up, helping to direct their resources.

At the end of the morning session The Richard Chadd Volunteer Award of the Year was presented. Congratulations to Ian Hawkins. Thanks were extended to all Riverfly Partnership volunteers and the five award nominees especially. Ian Hawkins is the first winner of the Richard Chadd Volunteer Award.

In the afternoon the theme was pressures on rivers, and ways in which citizen scientists have made a difference.

Michelle Walker (Rivers Trust) described the citizen science opportunities under the Catchment Systems Thinking Cooperative (CaSTCo) Project. CaSTCo is a 3-year project, which started in 2022. The broad aim is to include communities in collecting and sharing river catchment data to improve our understanding of our rivers and ultimately to improve river health.

Citizen science is already being used to collect data. But criticisms to date are that the information collected is fragmented, there are many different data platforms, and there are questions over whether all of the data can be trusted (quality checks not always in place).

CaSTCo is made up of many partner organisations including catchment partnerships, the Environment Agency, environmental NGOs, specialist advisors, universities, and water companies. This collaborative project aims to standardize citizen science by coming up with an agreed approach for training citizen scientists, monitoring river catchments, and sharing data (creating a data platform where data can be joined up and can be used to inform decisions and new policy).

Riverwatch is one specific aspect of the project that was mentioned. Riverwatch will act as a gateway to increase participation in citizen science. By introducing volunteers with no prior experience to some easily learned methods, Riverwatch aims to generate useful data, raise awareness about freshwater issues, and enthuse a diverse group of people, inspiring them to get involved with other citizen science schemes too.

CaSTCo is utilising 8 demo catchments to test training, monitoring and data collation methods. A number of these demo catchments have already run training days, begun collecting monitoring data and/or organised Water Blitzes. Longer-term, over 10 years or more, the intention is to roll out standardized citizen science methods for all catchments, including catchments in Scotland.

Rebecca Lewis (Buglife) spoke about connecting communities through Riverfly monitoring in Scotland, naming a particular example on the Esk which has 16 Riverfly sites, 51 active volunteers and 170 completed surveys.

Steve Ormerod (Water Research Institute, Cardiff University) warned us about the changing cocktail of river pollutants, including domestic pet flea treatments, and the associated challenges presented for citizen science. Steve went on to explain that as many as one in every two freshwater insects could be contaminated with microplastics. Dippers (river birds which feed on insects) therefore ingest hundreds of microplastic fragments per day, and inadvertently feed them to their chicks.

Adding more on the subject of veterinary contaminants, Craig Macadam (Buglife) spoke about the impact of flea-treatment contamination on riverflies. In the 1970s and 80s there was a massive decline in riverflies. Though there has been some recovery in the 90s and 2000s, riverflies are still declining and the list of extinct species is growing. Neonicotinoids (found in pet flea-treatments) have been found in 85% of monitored water courses and in 7% of samples in England the concentration has been above the acute toxicity level.

Pet flea-treatments, non-essential prophylactic medications, are used on millions of dogs and cats. After application they can be picked up as much as 4 weeks later, on the hands of their owners and on bedding. It is thought that hand washing and washing bedding is contaminating wastewater that then reaches the rivers – high concentrations are found downstream of sewage treatment works. The presentation concluded with Buglife’s recommendations to ban Fibronil and Imidactoprid as flea treatments, carry out risk assessments of other insecticides, and better regulate all flea treatments that can be bought over the counter.

Rick Battarbee (University College London) then presented the example of a citizen science project carried out on the River Wharfe. Faecal bacteria, nutrient chemistry, diatoms and Riverfly monitoring data were used in combination to assess conditions at 12 sites. Faecal bacteria and diatom surveys were particularly useful indicators of effluent pollution, though it was noted that the Extended Riverfly would have been more sensitive, had it been used. The worst conditions were downstream of a continuous discharge of treated sewage (worse than downstream of an intermittent untreated sewage release).

Kate Heppell (Queen Mary University of London & Chilterns Chalk Streams Project) was the final speaker of the day. The River Chess Smarter Water Catchment Programme is using a variety of citizen science approaches (Modular Rivers Survey, flow monitoring, MudSpotter, ChessWatch, Smart Rivers, emerging contaminants, ARMI and NOSES).

A key takeaway was that the Riverfly Partnership is looking to the future. Armed with new funding from the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation it is growing and developing, with 1000 active volunteers already. The roll out of the new Extended Riverfly scheme looks set to retain the interest and enthusiasm of existing ARMI citizen scientists, and the new Urban Riverfly hopes to attract new monitors in lower scoring and urban areas.

A common theme today was that citizen scientists are getting out in nature, enjoying themselves, expanding their knowledge, forging friendships, and making a difference. Organizations are collaborating so that the data collected by those individuals who are giving their time, becomes organised, more widely available, and easier to interpret, and gains credibility – so it can shape decisions about the future of river restoration.

And one final point – perhaps we shouldn’t be preventatively flea-treating our pets?


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