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Key points 

Freshwater habitats, such as rivers and wetlands, provide major benefits to society through services such as flood risk reduction and drinking water.  

However, many of these habitats are in a poor condition. They have been damaged by a range of human activities including physical modification and pollution. For example, an estimated 90% of wetlands have been lost over the last century.  

Restoration of freshwater habitats can be achieved by addressing the causes of degradation and by enhancing or extending habitats.  

There is good evidence on the benefits of some forms of restoration. For example, restoration can deliver effective flood defence and restore fish populations. However, certain restoration measures are less well-studied. 

There are numerous national and international targets for the restoration of freshwater habitats. These include a commitment to improving at least 75% of waters to close to their natural state as soon as practicable by 2042.  

However, some stakeholders believe that these commitments may not be met under current plans in England. There have been calls for various actions including: 

  • increased and long-term funding to deliver larger-scale projects 
  • changes to policy and legislation to deliver more joined-up decision making and to include small water bodies and headwaters 
  • further prevention of degradation, including better enforcement of existing legislation 
  • the removal of barriers to nature-based solutions 

Policy in this area is devolved. For England, the UK Government published a Plan for Water in 2023 that contained new actions to help improve the condition of freshwater habitats. 

The Office for Environmental Protection will publish an assessment of the Government’s approach in 2024. 


POSTnotes are based on literature reviews and interviews with a range of stakeholders and are externally peer reviewed. POST would like to thank interviewees and peer reviewers for kindly giving up their time during the preparation of this briefing, including: 

  • Members of the POST board* 
  • Professor J Biggs (Freshwater Habitats Trust)* 
  • Kate Chandler, Dan Roberts, Emma Pollitt (Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust)* 
  • Alistair Chisholm (Chartered Institution of Water and Environmental Management) 
  • Rob Collins (The Rivers Trust) 
  • Natural England* 
  • Matthew Doran (CLA) 
  • Lucinda Gilfoyle (Water UK)* 
  • Dr D Gowing & Olivia Nelson (Floodplain Meadows Partnership) 
  • Dr R Grawbowski (Cranfield University)* 
  • Janina Gray (Wildfish) 
  • JNCC 
  • Martin Janes (River Restoration Centre)* 
  • Professor P Johnes (University of Bristol)* 
  • Sir John Lawton 
  • Sue Marrs (NatureScot)* 
  • J McCarthy (Scotland Rural College) 
  • Dr S Mckenzie (Trent Rivers Trust) 
  • Zoe Moore (NFU) 
  • Ofwat 
  • Professor S Ormerod (Cardiff University)* 
  • Dr M Peacock (University of Liverpool) 
  • Dr A Pickard (Centre for Ecology and Hydrology) 
  • Dr Alan Puttock (University of Exeter) 
  • Charles Rangeley-Wilson (CaBA Chalk Streams Working Group) 
  • Joel Rees-Jones (LIFE River Dee) 
  • Alan Sargent (3keel) 
  • Professor C Sayer (University College London)* 
  • Environment Agency* 
  • Matthew Simpson (35percent/Constructed Wetlands Association) 
  • Professor C Spray (University of Dundee)* 
  • Defra* 

 *Denotes people and organisations who acted as external reviewers of the briefing

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