A MULTI-MILLION pound grant is to be shared among Hampshire communities to prevent a major waterway from falling into disrepair.

The £2.2m investment, from the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF), is part of a project to protect the headwaters of the Test and Itchen rivers.

The rivers arise from the chalk of the Hampshire Downs, and are home to wildlife, including otter, water vole, kingfisher, water shrew and white-clawed crayfish.

As well as this, the headwaters support a range of heritage industries, villages and their communities.

The area is renowned for its fly-fishing, is central to the UK’s watercress industry and its water mills have supported industries such as the production of paper, corn, silk, and even gin.

However the landscape is at risk from pollution, drought and flooding, invasive species, and our built heritage is falling into disrepair.

But now the project, made possible through HLF’s Landscape Partnership (LP) programme, will look to restore wildlife habitats and historic structures along the river, improving access and raising water quality.

Project partners will also work with seven communities on headwater streams – the Pilhill Brook, Upper Anton, Bourne Rivulet, Upper Test, Candover Brook, River Arle and Cheriton Stream - to develop and put in place plans to protect the rivers in the area.

Ali Morse,water policy and catchment technical specialist at of Hampshire and Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust, said: “For the first time, the project will bring together a partnership of communities, organisations, businesses and individuals who will all be working to protect and improve the headwater streams that are the lifeblood of our chalk rivers.“From monitoring river wildlife to restoring degraded rivers, reducing pollution-laden run off to getting schoolchildren interested in fishing, we’ll all be working to the same goal - to ensure that these wonderful streams are valued, and are in the best condition that they can be.”

Other plans during the project include celebrating the heritage of the area through an education programme for schools.

They will be sharing walking routes, and introduce a conservation programme for crayfish; showing how people can take action to improve our headwaters, including improving water efficiency, switching to eco-friendly products, and raising awareness of the problem of non-native species; training and skills development for communities, landowners, and people who volunteer as ‘River Keepers’ to manage their stretches of the river better.

Drew Bennellick, HLF Head of Landscape and Natural Heritage, said: “Across the UK people are increasingly realising that nature is in trouble and it’s time to take a more proactive approach. Schemes like these provide a creative solution to helping people reconnect with landscapes and the environment, to implement solutions at a truly landscape-scale and tackle issues such as soil loss and flooding by supporting partnerships and coalitions of the willing.”