The source of many watercourses and ponds

Springs and flushes are formed where underground water emerges at the surface, so they are the start of many of our streams and some ponds. These wetland habitats may be small, but they can be rich in biodiversity.

What are springs and flushes?

Springs and flushes are areas where water from underground – called groundwater – flows out onto the surface to create freshwater and wetland habitats.

Springs are the locations where water bubbles out of the ground, which can then either flow into obvious stream channels or spread across the ground to make an area of wetland that doesn’t have a single channel.

Flushes are essentially a special kind of springline wetland, where the water is flowing diffusely across the ground surface, held up by impermeable soils and rock.

Shallow stream with rocks in it and grass either side.

- Springs and flushes are the source of many streams. This limestone spring in the Yorkshire Dales feeds the Skellicks Beck above Aysgarth © Peter Wood

Where are springs and flushes found?

Springs and flushes are found all over the country, and in all kinds of landscape, although they are less common where land drainage has lowered the water level in the ground.

The total number of springs and flushes has never been counted or surveyed, so we don’t know exactly where they are – or how many there are.

Wet ground with various plants growing.

- A spring-fed flush at Cothill fen, Oxfordshire

What can you find living in a spring or flush?

Springs are places where small animals and plants dominate. These habitats support a range of endangered mosses and liverworts, cold water flatworms, caddis flies and the larvae of two-winged flies. These small wetland habitats can also include a surprising variety of invertebrates, including beetles, craneflies and spiders, which can thrive in the very shallow, vegetated and waterlogged conditions.

The endangered Southern Damselfly can often be found very close to the start of springs and seepages. Sometimes creatures that live in water underground also come to the surface at springs. If the spring is permanent it may be used by fish. Bullheads, for example, live right up close to the beginning of many lowland streams.

Flushes support a wide variety of wetland plants. In alkaline flushes these include species such as Grass-of-Parnassus, Common Butterwort and Flea-sedge as well as Ragged-Robin and Common Valerian.

Species directory
Blue and black damselfly resting on a stem.

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

Why are springs and flushes important?

Springs and flushes are important because they support specialised and often little-known species that need cool, and often permanently flowing, water. But not much is known about life in springs and they may turn out to have even more value than we currently imagine. That is why we need more research and monitoring work to understand the role of these habitats for biodiversity.

In some parts of the country, springs are especially important for mosses and liverworts – plants that often go overlooked. Petrifying springs with tufa formation (Cratoneurion) are specially protected under the EU Habitats Directive.

They can be areas of open, stony ground with only sparse plant cover or have a complete and often dense cover of flowering plants – usually sedges or rushes – with mosses and liverworts forming a ground layer under this canopy.

Our policy work
Close up aerial view of white flower with five petals.

- Grass-of-Parnassus.

How Freshwater Habitats Trust is helping springs and flushes

As the UK’s charity for all freshwaters, we focus on the whole water environment. We also recognise that small waterbodies, including flushes and springs, are particularly important because – in most landscapes – they provide habitats for the widest variety of freshwater plants and animals, and are hotspots for endangered species. In our work to identify Important Freshwater Area and Landscapes, we are mapping species associated with flushes to ensure these area are protected.

Through our practical conservation work, we’re helping to manage and protect flushes and springs at sites in Oxfordshire , Hampshire and mid-Wales. In The River Irfon catchment in mid-Wales we’ve been mapping freshwater and wetland habitats, including the Priority habitat ‘Upland flushes, fens and swamps’. In the Irfon and much of upland Wales, these habitats are currently receiving too little – or the wrong kind of – grazing to maintain their interest. We are working with local farmers to better manage grazing to protect freshwater biodiversity, including using GPS enabled cattle collars which keep cattle in specific areas without the need for fencing.

- The River Irfon catchment in mid-Wales

Find out more about our work on springs and flushes

New Forest wetland on a wintery day with blue sky
New Forest Catchment Partnership

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The Freshwater Network

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

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As the UK’s charity for all freshwaters, we committed to affecting change, through scientific research and through lobbying.

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