FAQs about Bathing Water Designation at Sheep’s Green

How does designation help clean up the river?

Designation is a powerful tool to accelerate the cleanup of the river. Firstly, because it shines an official spotlight on the water quality. Secondly, because the water quality here will almost certainly be rated as “poor”, it imposes Statutory Obligations on industry to reduce the pollution from sewage works, urban sewage overflows and agricultural slurry.  Unlike general non-statutory calls to reduce pollution, the water industry responds to these Statutory Obligations, so this prioritises and drives real change.   Some of the key pieces of legislation are the ‘Bathing Water Regulations 2013’ , WINEP, which governs the water industry funding and WISER (Water Industry Strategic Environmental Requirements)

Designation helps accelerate the cleanup, but we’ll need to keep up the pressure for wider change too. Ultimately, we need to change our relationship with the natural world, so water can be good quality everywhere. However, this will probably take decades and the whole farming and water management system will need to change.

I’ve heard that areas with Designated Bathing Water status MUST promote bathing in the area, which will increase the number of visitor. Is this true

No. This is completely false

The rumour probably results from the line in the Bathing Water Regulations 2013

3.—(1) Part 1 of Schedule 2 lists the surface waters that have been identified in England, other than excluded pools and waters, at which the Secretary of State expects a large number of people to bathe, having regard in particular to past trends and any infrastructure or facilities provided, or other measures taken, to promote bathing at those waters.”

We are informed that this means that it is a site that existing bathers use, with no signage prohibiting swimming, and where there are pre-existing facilities or infrastructure, such as steps, that support bathing.

We’ve also had confirmation from Clean River Ilkley that designation is not about marketing, and does not increase the number of visitors

Will designation increase the numbers of people coming to Sheep’s Green and the nearby Paradise Local Nature Reserve? 

In the short term, no. We are counting “bathers” this summer, and we qualify for designation. (Defra require an average of over 100/ day on the 2 busiest days, and we counted 237 on 10 August and 184 on 19 August and 478 on 10 September)

We know the water quality on the Cam is very likely to be rated as “poor” which will require the council to put up a sign saying “Bathing is not advised”. This will deter rather than encourage swimmers. The experience of other river groups, such as at Ilkley in Yorkshire, is that designation has made no difference to numbers.

However, 3-5 years time, hopefully the water quality downstream from Haslingfield Sewage Works will have improved (something we’ve all been campaigning for).  More people are then likely to feel safe enough to swim in the Cam at Byron’s Pool, Grantchester Meadows and Sheep’s Green.  

We welcome more people connecting with nature, particularly in our highly unequal city.

When considering the Sheep’s Green area, it’s important to remember that the vast majority of the people that come to the area, do so to access the Lammas Land paddling pool, playground, cafe and local walks. When we counted visitors to Lammas Land and Sheeps Green on 19 August 3:40pm-3:55pm, only 2% were swimming in the river. This means that even if the number of wild swimmers at Sheep’s Green does ultimately increase, it will make very little difference to the overall numbers in the area.

Why choose Sheep’s Green, when most people swim at Grantchester Meadows?

Defra only allow applications from inland sites if there are toilets within 500m, and if it’s a short stretch of less than 500m.  This ruled out applying for Grantchester Meadows.  Nevertheless, designation will benefit the whole river between Haslingfield and Cambridge, and people will remain free to swim anywhere.

I’ve heard the council wants it to become a “Destination”. Won’t this increase numbers?

This rumour is based on a misunderstanding. It may have come from the section of the city council motion on 20 July that ‘affirms the goal …of having the water management plan for our chalk streams based on being an ‘environmental destination’ with subsequent protection as sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI)”. 

Note that in water resource management government jargon, an “environmental destination” means a “long term goal”, not a “destination” in the tourism sense of the word.  The council motion is about getting a higher level of protection for the chalk streams from abstraction, which is something we very much welcome.

Cllr Katie Thornburrow has confirmed that the City Council has NO plans to turn Sheep’s Green into a vistor destination, and none have been discussed

I’ve heard the council will have to build showers and changing rooms and dredge the river. Is this true?

No. Bathing Water Designation is for the benefit of current “bathers”.  Theres no requirement to improve facilities, or to carry out any other changes.

Cllr Katie Thornburrow has confirmed that the designation does not require new facilities to be built and the council has no plans to do so

I’ve heard people calling it a Designated Bathing Area or DBA, saying that this means it’s obvious its intended to attract people to a small designated area. Is this correct?

No. The correct name, used by Government is “Designated Bathing Water.” This is because bathing is NOT restricted to a small area. In a river, water flows though the site, so a large stretch of river benefits from clean-up as a result of designation .

Are you independent?

Cam Valley Forum is a voluntary group, established in 2001, registered with HMRC as charitable. We are entirely independent, and politically neutral. 

As our website states, “We work with our extensive network of partners to protect and improve the environment of the River Cam and its tributaries”  We frequently criticise the water companies and others for pollution and over-abstraction.

In 2021, when our volunteers started monitoring the Cam for faecal bacteria (ie bacteria from poo), we received a small grant of £1,500 from Anglian Water as a contribution towards the costs of laboratory analysis. In September 2022, Anglian Water took over the test program, and they are providing us with test results until September 2023.  We are publishing these on our website here

We think the public deserve to have more reliable, independent information on water quality, than that provided by volunteer citizen scientists like us, or by the Water Company itself. This is why we welcome the help of a very experienced and professional body like the Environment Agency, who have responsibility for monitoring Designated Bathing Water sites.

Will it be 100% safe? 

Bathing Water Designation will reduce the chance of diarrhoea and vomiting from ingesting faecal bacteria. 

Most people who swim in the Cam do so without problems, however wild swimming is never 100% safe, so you should make your own judgement (and keep your mouth shut while swimming).  For certainty about safety, we advise swimming in swimming pools like Kelsey Kerridge, Abbey and Jesus Green Lido where the water is filtered and chlorinated, and the pool is supervised by lifeguards.

If the site becomes a Designated Bathing Water site, the City Council will have to display the Environment Agency’s annual water quality rating, in order to help inform the public of the level of risk. In addition to this, we are also encouraging the Council to display some Wild Swimming safety advice, as Oxford City Council has done at their Designated Bathing Site.

237 bathers at Sheep’s Green

On Thursday 10th August, the Cam Valley Forum team had a glorious afternoon at Sheep’s Green, and counted 237 bathers over the busiest four hours.

This is way higher than Defra’s requirement* to show a minimum of 100 “bathers” per day over the 2 busiest days of the summer. Nevertheless, the river never felt at all crowded.

Typically, at any one time, there were 2-10 swimmers in the river, and a similar number of small children paddling in The Rush. It was a warm day at ~26C, but after weeks of cold weather, the water was still cool at ~14C, so few stayed in longer than a few minutes. The river never felt busy.

(For those interested in the maths… if a site had an average of 5 bathers in the water at any one time, each staying in 5 minutes, that would result in 60 bathers / hour, or 240 bathers over 4 hours)

Swimming in the river gives so much pleasure: Small children and their parents picnic and play by The Rush. Adults and older kids swim from the Canoe Club quayside, while the teenagers gather at Hodson’s Folly, socialising and swimming.

Here are a few of the voices from the afternoon.

Ann learnt to swim here during the War, and still swims here
Parent of disabled child at Sheep’s Green

*Defra say:

Do user surveys on 2 days during the bathing season to count the number of people bathing.Do your user surveys for up to 4 hours at the busiest times of day. The 4 hours can be consecutive but do not need to be. For example, you can survey the site for an hour at a time at different times throughout the day, or survey the site for 4 hours in one go. Defra will use your surveys to calculate the average daily number of bathers

We did our user survey in accordance with this, counting in four, 1 hour sessions between 12:30 and 16:50 on 10 August 2023.

We hope to do another count, later in the bathing season. Let us know if you’d like to help.

Our Consultation: if you haven’t yet done so, please respond to our consultation here and/or come to our Consultation Event 6pm Tuesday 29 August, in Newnham Sports and Social Club.

Blanket Herbicide Spraying by the Environment Agency

Cam between Littlebury and Little Chesterford, 19 Oct 2019 (c) Mike Foley

We are horified to discover that the Environment Agency is proposing, once again, to blanket spray herbicide along large stretches of our precious rivers and streams.   We object strongly to this, and urge the EA to put their money and resources to better use.

You can see a summary of our progress (or not) below, and a full log here of the reports that we have received of damage caused by blanket herbicide spraying

Update  26 June 2020

We understand that discussions are ongoing in the Environment Agency and hope for a positive outcome.  In the meantime we would welcome any further views and evidence from river users to help us press our concerns home and ensure that the funds earmarked for spraying are instead used for positive work to enhance our rivers.

Update 4 June 2020

In early June, we were horrified to discover that the Environment Agency is proposing, once again, to blanket spray herbicide along large stretches of our precious rivers and streams.   They say this is “to maintain sinuosity within the channel to help reduce flood risk”

You can see the full list of sites here:EA herbicide proposals 2020

They sent this out for consultation to selected key conservation organisations a few weeks ago, with a deadline for responses of 5 June. However, as many staff are on furlough, it has only just come to our attention.

You can read our formal consultation response here

Fen Ditton Ditch clearance

The reservoir of the invasive weed, Floating Pennywort in the ditch between Fen Ditton ditch and the Cam has been in our sights for about a year. It is particularly important because now that the upper river is clear of Floating Pennywort, Cambridge Conservators are undertaking a major pennywort clearance project in the main river downstream of Cambridge. This ditch is now the main upstream reservoir.

Dealing with it has been a joint effort, led by Mike Foley.

Part of the problem was that a fallen tree was blocking access from the river, but ownership was unclear. It was clearly going to take a while to resolve, so Cambridge City Council lent us a boom to help contain the pennywort in the ditch until we could sort out what to do….

It took many many months, but finally, thanks to persistant hard work by Mike, much pouring over maps and many discussions with the Parish Council, various potential land owners and their agents,  Jesus College kindly agreed to “take responsibility” for dealing with the tree.

South Cambs District Council accelerated the permit for the treeworks as much as possible, but the nesting season had started before we got the OK to proceed. However, once Mike had done a Bird Survey to show that all was clear, Bidwells came in and removed the tree.The following day a team of 13 from Cambridge based technology company Sentec joined Mike to clear the pennywort.

They made good use of a set of nets and rakes given to us by the Environment Agency earlier this year.

The ditch is now basically clear of pennywort, although we will be continuing regular followup sessions from the bank and water to remove remaining strands as they emerge as the weather warms up.

If anyone who lives in the Fen Ditton area would like to help, do let us know.