Quarter of rivers at risk of running dry following low winter rainfall

More than a quarter of rivers and over half the chalk streams in England are at risk of drying out, wildlife experts have warned.

A dry winter coupled with "over-abstraction" - the process of taking water from a ground source - from rivers and chalks streams, threaten more than 550 bodies of water, figures from Freedom of Information requested by the WWF suggest.

The warning comes as parts of the UK face the possibility of drought following low winter rainfall, which the WWF said could push wildlife that inhabit rivers and streams to the brink.

April was "exceptionally" dry, with most of the UK receiving less than half the average rainfall for the month. Southern England has seen the driest July to April in records stretching back more than 100 years.

The conservation charity warned that if too much water continues to be taken out of rivers for public supplies and agriculture, wildlife such as threatened water voles and kingfishers will be hit.

Tanya Steele, chief executive of WWF, said: "If we have a dry summer our green and pleasant land could become as parched as some of the Mediterranean.

"This may sound attractive for sun-seekers, but in fact it would be disastrous for wildlife.

"It would mean hundreds of millions of pounds of damage, tens of thousands of fish dying, and serious declines of some of our most loved wetland species."

The charity is calling for the Government to ensure all EU water and environmental rules are transferred into UK law to safeguard nature, and for urgent action at the 555 river water bodies where abstraction is already causing damage.

An Environment Department (Defra) spokeswoman said: "The Environment Agency has already made significant changes to over 250 abstraction licences and we are examining a range of ways to further protect the environment, including legislative or regulatory changes."

An Environment Agency spokeswoman said: "We are in a prolonged period of dry weather which began in the autumn last year and despite rain in May some rivers, groundwaters and reservoirs are still lower than normal for the time of year.

"The Environment Agency is working actively with water companies, businesses and farmers to balance the needs of water users and minimise any potential impacts to people, the environment and wildlife.