How to be an environmentally-aware paddler in West Sussex

On the face of it, paddling is one of the most environmentally-friendly watersports you can do. As paddlers, we leave no wake to erode the river bank, we make no engine noise and need no fuel beyond our own breakfast. When we’re out on the water, whether lake, river or sea, we’re seeing nature on its own terms. Or are we?

Paddling in West Sussex is a beautiful experience, and one that’s enjoyed by more and more people. But more paddlers means more pressure on the natural world. As paddlers, it’s our responsibility to look after the watery world around us. To enjoy it without disturbing it.

You might think you’re doing no harm and leaving only paddle prints, but look below the surface and you’ll see there’s always more you can do to help preserve the fragile habitats that make paddling in West Sussex such a pleasure.

Five ways to reduce the environmental impact of your paddling:

1. Join a tour and learn about the area

Each waterway in West Sussex contains a multitude of habitats and wildlife, each with its own sensitivities. Many of the protected areas have their own restrictions, too. One of the most effective things you can do to reduce your environmental impact is to familiarise yourself with your surroundings and any regulations before you launch.

The easiest way to do this is to join a tour or take a lesson with a local watersports tour operator. These guides have been paddling West Sussex’s waterways for years and what they don’t know about the area isn’t worth knowing. As well as being paddling pros, these local experts can fill you in on useful info such as where to spot a kingfisher, when to see baby seals, official launch and landing points and make you aware of any restrictions in protected areas.

Guided kayak tour with two men sitting in red kayak
Two paddle boarders in a river
A close up image of a bird
Stand up paddleboarders in the water

2. Look but don’t linger over wildlife

Before you launch, get acquainted with the wildlife and plants you’re likely to encounter – above, below and around the water.

West Sussex’s seas and waterways teem with creatures, from dolphins and seals at sea to snails in the lagoons and dormice in the hedgerows along canals. Watching wildlife in their natural environment is one of the greatest thrills of paddling, but even with the best intentions, there are several ways you could unknowingly disturb the animals.

Aim to paddle with minimal impact on the local wildlife. As a rule of thumb, be as quiet as possible and move slowly and smoothly. You can look – but not for too long.

Whether you’re paddling at sea or inland, you’re likely to spot some birdlife. All wild birds, their nests and eggs are protected by law – but not all birds nest in trees out of the way of paddlers. Tread carefully when you launch – some nests are as basic as a depression in a shingle beach, others are hidden in river banks.

Bird nesting season is officially February to August. During this time, paddle extra-quietly past nesting sites and keep a low paddle angle wherever you can. Keep at least 50 metres away from seabirds nesting on cliffs and shorelines and try not to linger longer than 10 minutes. Rafting birds are probably tired after fishing, so don’t approach them. Watch out for signs of agitation, such as bobbing heads, more intense vocalisations – and if they fly away you’re probably already too close.

The knock-on effects of not following these simple guidelines during nesting season are more severe than you might imagine. Disturbed birds could abandon their nests, eggs or chicks. Eggs could be knocked off the nest in the adults’ hurry to flee, eaten by predators while the parents are away, or take longer to hatch if they’re not incubated properly.

Similar guidelines apply to seals. You can spot both common and grey seals in West Sussex. Chichester harbour is the only known breeding ground in the Eastern English Channel and a great place to paddle in the company of a flipper-footed companion! Try to stay at least 100 metres from any seals, whether they’re on the shore or in the water – unless these curious creatures approach you. If that happens, let the seals be in control. Sit back quietly and observe, make sure you’re not between them and their escape route to the safety of the open sea, and never, ever feed them.

3. Stick to the main waterways

As a paddler, you pose the greatest risk to wildlife when entering and leaving the water. As well as the potential damage to birds’ nests and aquatic plants, you could disturb fish spawning sites.

Different fish species spawn at different times of year and in different places along a river. Usually, fresh gravel riffles are chosen for spawning and paddlers should be careful not to disturb spawning adults or damage newly laid eggs.

To help fish populations – and all wildlife – paddlers should use recognised launching and landing points, avoid shallow water and stick to public footpaths when you’re not on the water. Don’t drag your craft across gravel banks and avoid disturbing the river bed with your paddle.

A group of SUP paddleboarders carrying a kayak into a river
the Kayak Coach River Adur - Canoeing

4. Pick up any rubbish you see

It goes without saying that you should take all your litter home, but go above and beyond by picking up any rubbish you might see floating in the water or tangled along the waterline. You could even take a bag and a grab-stick or a net and turn your expedition into a paddle-based litter pick.

If you spot any pollution, damage to the waterway or invasive species, please report it to the relevant authorities, such as the Environment Agency, Canal & River Trust and the RSPCA.

5. Think about your actions before and after your paddle 

Another environmental aspect to consider is transport to and from your launch site. Could you reach it by public transport, carpool or cycle? (Perhaps it’s time to invest in a bike trailer for your kit…) And if you’re planning to pack a picnic or stop off for lunch at one of West Sussex’s waterside pubs or cafés, choose locally grown produce wherever you can.

If you’re just starting out and buying kit, check out sustainably made boards, kayaks and paddles, or opt for second hand. The synthetic materials used in most modern paddling equipment takes generations to break down, and releases harmful gases in the process.

Also, if you’re likely to get into the water, as well as paddling over it, make sure your insect repellent is DEET-free and your sunscreen is eco-friendly. Even better, opt for rash vests and other cover-ups instead.

SUP paddlleboarders out in the water holding ores above their heads

Thank you!

Thank you for taking the time to read this guide. It shows you care about the impact you have on the fragile waterways that we’re lucky enough to paddle in West Sussex. While you’re here, why not browse our watersports businesses and see what West Sussex has to offer.