1. Climate-change effects on rivers and streams might interact with other pressures, such as pollution, but long-term investigations are scarce. We assessed trends among macroinvertebrates in 50 southern English streams in relation to temperature, discharge and water quality over 18 years (1989–2007).
2. Long-term records, coupled with estimates from inter-site calibrations of 3–4 years, showed that mean stream temperatures in the study area had increased by 2.1–2.9 °C in winter and 1.1–1.5 °C in summer over the 26 year period from 1980 to 2006, with trends in winter strongest.
3. While invertebrate assemblages in surface-fed streams were constant, those in chalk-streams changed significantly during 1989–2007. Invertebrate trends correlated significantly with temperature, but effects were spurious because (i) assemblages gained taxa typical of faster flow or well-oxygenated conditions, contrary to expectations from warming; (ii) more invertebrate families increased in abundance than declined and (iii) concomitant changes in water quality (e.g. declining orthophosphate, ammonia and biochemical oxygen demand), or at some sites changes in discharge, explained more variation in invertebrate abundance and composition than did temperature.
4. These patterns were reconfirmed in both group- and site-specific analyses.
5. We conclude that recent winter-biased warming in southern English chalk-streams has been insufficient to affect invertebrates negatively over a period of improving water quality. This implies that positive management can minimize some climate-change impacts on stream ecosystems. Chalk-stream invertebrates are sensitive, nevertheless, to variations in discharge, and detectable changes could occur if climate change alters flow pattern.
6. Because climatic trends now characterize many inter-annual time-series, we caution other investigators to examine whether putative effects on ecological systems are real or linked spuriously to other causes of change.