Created by humans, often rich in biodiversity

Ditches are waterbodies that have been created by people, mainly to drain the land.

What is a ditch?

Unlike streams, ditches are usually straight, follow linear field boundaries – often turning at right angles – and show little relationship with natural landscape contours. It can sometimes be difficult to separate them from heavily engineered small streams.

Freshwater Habitats Trust was the first organisation to systematically describe the importance of ditches for freshwater wildlife across the landscape – although the diversity of life in coastal marshland ditches has been known to many people, and carefully cherished by a range of organisations since at least the 1980s.

Ditch in a field

500,000 km

of ditches in the British countryside

500,000 km

of ditches in the British countryside

What can you find living in a ditch?

Like all other freshwaters, what lives in ditches depends on how polluted they are. It also varies according to their gradient, and how often they flow. In lowland marshes around the coast, and up some river valleys, ditches can have some of the most beautiful and richest freshwater communities. In England and Wales, these areas provide one of the great remaining refuges of comparatively unpolluted water and with a very long history as wetland environment, they are the ancient woodlands of the water world. These are a minority, and are only found in a landscape which covers perhaps 10% of the UK. In the rest of the landscape, the ditches are much more like small, seasonal or permanent, headwater streams.

Perhaps the most iconic species of the lowland marsh ditches is the Great Silver Water Beetle – our biggest water beetle and now almost entirely restricted to this environment.

Head on close up of Southern Hawker dragonfly.

- Southern Hawker dragonfly. Photo: Kevin Baker

Why are ditches important?

Ditches are found almost everywhere in the lowlands and also reach surprisingly far up into the hills.

Ditches are important because some are truly outstanding gems of nature – as important as the very best salmon rivers for their wildlife. But they are also important because there are a lot of them, and they reach into every corner of the land. And although the smaller ditches ‘inland’ are not as rich as other freshwaters, you never know what temporary water specialists might turn up in them. And because there are so many of them, there’s  a good chance that something will turn up in them that isn’t found in another freshwater habitat.

Water running out of a pipe into a ditch. Field behind.

- Ditch in the Stonton Brook catchment.

How Freshwater Habitats Trust is helping ditches

We’re focusing on making sure that the very best ditches – there are probably still thousands of kilometres – are protected from pollution, and that their quality is regularly monitored. Most are only surveyed intermittently, if at all. We’ll be starting practical projects to reduce pollution in the ditches systems around the fringes of the top sites so that sensitive creatures and plants can spread – not least because the coastal freshwater ditch networks are some of the most threatened by rising sea levels. In the rest of landscape we’ll be looking out for the ditches which carry clean water as these will usually have the better variety of freshwater wildlife – and may support plants and animals associated naturally with headwaters.

In some areas were also working on projects to recreate the wetlands originally drained by the very ditches which are now so important. In these area we’ll need to be careful not to destroy the special wildlife which still has a refuge in the ditches while giving these same species the wetland space to spread back into the rest of the landscape.

Blue and black damselfly resting on a stem.

- Southern Damselfly at Cothill Fen, Oxfordshire. Photo copyright Alan S.L. Leung.

Find out more about our work on ditches

Aerial view of a landscape, including a meandering river and newly dug ponds.
The Freshwater Network

We’re building a network of wilder, wetter, cleaner, more connected habitats to reverse the decline in freshwater biodiversity.

Find out more
Pond with tree reflected on the water, blue sky behind.
Water Friendly Farming

This long-term research demonstration project is testing the effectiveness of agri-environment measures on ponds, streams, lakes, rivers and ditches.

Find out more
Ock Arable project

We’re engaging with farmers across the Ock catchment to tackle pollution and improve the water environment.

Find out more