No single stretch of river in England or NI in “good ecological health”

Healthy rivers are vital. As the arteries of our landscapes they mitigate the impacts of climate change, support a wealth of biodiverse ecosystems, and benefit both our mental and physical wellbeing. However, plagued by sewage, chemicals, nutrients, and plastics, and having been heavily modified throughout history, the majority of our rivers across the UK and Ireland are far from healthy, according to a new report by The Rivers Trust.

The State of Our Rivers 2024 is a comprehensive deep dive into the health of waterways in the UK and Ireland. With data and evidence at its core, the report shares insights to help understand the issues facing rivers and the actions needed to restore them to good health, a crucial element of a more resilient landscape.

The first edition of the State of Our Rivers report was published in September 2021. This 2024 update uses the latest data from the Water Framework Directive assessments in England, as well as data for Ireland, Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland.

Rivers Trust Chief Executive, Mark Lloyd, said, “The State of Our Rivers Report is a huge passion project for us, as it’s so important to ensure that science and evidence are at the heart of conversations about how to improve our rivers. However, it’s also much more than that, as it puts the data in the hands of the public so that they can join us in calling for the change that our environment so desperately needs.”

The State of Our Rivers report shows that:

  • Rivers are in a desperate state, with no tangible improvements since 2021
  • No single stretch of river in England or Northern Ireland is in good overall health
  • Just 15% of English, 31% of Northern Irish, and 50% of Irish river stretches reach good ecological health standards
  • Toxic chemicals persist in every stretch of English rivers
  • A lack of data and action is holding back progress towards a healthy and resilient river environment

A Rivers Trust spokesperson said, “Whilst some of the problems are visible, such as obvious signs of pollution and large artificial barriers spanning bank to bank, many lurk beneath the surface, rendering even seemingly pristine waters far from healthy. Additionally, inconsistent data availability makes the full-scale of the problems challenging to determine, and exact sources of pollution tricky to pinpoint. Yet, if we are to properly address the issues impacting the health of our rivers and create sustainable, long-term changes that benefit our rivers, we need to understand exactly what and where the problems are.”

The State of Our Rivers report compiles the available facts, stats, and maps, alongside insightful case studies and deep dives to thoroughly delve into the current condition of our waterways both locally and nationally, whilst also highlighting where the data is lacking.

In England:

  • 62% of river stretches failed because of activities attributed to agriculture & rural land management (pollution from fertiliser or livestock)
  • 54% of river stretches failed because of activities attributed to the water industry (including treated and untreated sewage discharge, and abstraction of groundwater)
  • 26% of river stretches failed because of activities attributed to the urban and transport sector (such as urbanisation and transport pollutants)
  • 39% of river stretches have a failure for which the sector is under investigation (is not known)

In Northern Ireland:

  • Of the 450 river stretches looked at in Northern Ireland 0% achieved good overall status, and 12% were given either poor or bad overall status
  • Only 31% achieved good ecological status, and just 2 stretches achieved high ecological status, and
  • Almost 70% failed to meet the requirements for good ecological status
  • 47% failed to reach good biological status, which measures the health of living things in the water
  • 53% were given good or high general physico-chemical status, which looks at conditions that affect life in the river, such as temperature and nutrient composition


  • Just over half of all river stretches (1,602 in total) achieved good or high ecological health status, and 17% are classed as in poor or bad ecological health. Compared to lakes, coastal and transitional waters, a far lower percentage of rivers sampled achieved high ecological status.
  • Only 39% of rivers in Ireland reached good or high biological standards, which takes into account the health of things like the aquatic plants, fish, insects and other invertebrates that live in the water. These living creatures are directly affected by their environment, and their health can be used as an indicator of the overall condition of the river.
  • 94% of rivers in Ireland were not assessed for chemicals – monitoring was instead targeted around areas where chemical pollution was more likely. Of the 193 that were surveyed, 60% failed and 40% passed for chemicals.


In the latest round of Water Framework Directive (WFD) assessments in 2021, 44% of Wales’s river stretches achieved at least good overall status. When looking at just chemical assessments, there was a 94% success rate for good status. These figures are often used to make favourable comparisons between the state of Welsh rivers and those in other parts of the UK, especially England. However, Afonydd Cymru (Wales’s version of The Rivers Trust) has concerns about the way in which assessments for WFD are being carried out in Wales.

Natural Resources Wales’s passive sampling programme provides data which indicates a wide range of chemicals at levels above safe thresholds. However, 455 waterbodies (out of the total of 714) were not assessed by the Welsh environmental regulator for “Priority Hazardous Substances” and 452 were not assessed for “Priority Substances”. Despite this, all were still classified as ‘High’ status (in the absence of monitored data).


Fisheries Management Scotland’s member District Salmon Fishery Boards and Rivers and Fisheries Trusts are working to protect and restore our rivers. Scotland’s rivers are a precious national asset and in the face of the wild salmon and biodiversity crises we urge the Scottish Government, and all relevant Agencies are doing everything possible to ensure that our aquatic environment is protected and restored.

The proportion of river stretches assessed as being in good or better overall condition is now 57.2%, as found in SEPA’s classifications for 2022. This equates to an improvement in overall condition for 23 river stretches (to good status or better) since 2020.

Read the interactive report

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