World Wetlands Day Blog: On the Level

In honour of World Wetlands Day (when will we next see an international environmental convention signed in Iran?) I write today about the Somerset Levels.

Has anyone noticed that the Somerset Levels are under water? There’s been a bit in the news about it. Indeed it seems as though it is the main news on TV day after day, week after week.  John Kay must be up for the “Longest time spent by a correspondent talking about nothing to camera while standing in 4 inches of water” award at the RTS. “and I can now tell you that the water has actually gone down a little over night, but rain is expected here soon and I have been told that the water may well be coming up again tomorrow – people are preparing for the worst Fiona.”

Action is demanded, “something must be done”. Local MPs fulminate, looking around for scapegoats. The Environment Agency! It must be their fault. They look after the environment after all, don’t they? They should have dredged that river years ago. Let’s revive an old plan from the 60s, when anything seemed possible, to drain the levels. At least Natural England aren’t getting it in the neck. They heave a sigh of relief while sympathising with their colleagues at EA.

ditch clearance

sympathetic land drainage ((c) Miles King)

The Prime Minister wades in. Its not acceptable that people have to live with flooding  – “I am making sure everything that can be done is being done”. 

And he says he is “not ruling out any option to get this problem sorted out”.

Really Dave? Money no object? New legislation if necessary? No, I didn’t think so.

Why have the Levels flooded? There have been biblical amounts of rain around in the South and West (I should know, living in Dorset and nerdily measuring daily rainfall totals). I have recorded an astonishing 480mm in 45 days in Dorchester. Records are tumbling – in the longest continuous series of rainfall measurements in England, it’s the wettest winter month of the lot, wettest in more than 250 years. Now whether this is the result of climate change or not is difficult to say. But for a long time climate scientists have predicted and are now observing that climate change will bring more extreme rainfall, more storms and wetter winters to the UK.

The Levels themselves have had a good amount of rain – 100-150mm in January, which followed the same in December – but nothing spectacular. It was the surrounding hills (Mendips, Blackdowns, Poldens and Quantocks) that caught much more rain, and inevitably it drained into the Levels, which is the base of the bowl. So the cause of the flooding in the Levels lies outside the Levels, or rather we should look at the Levels and their catchment as one.

What’s happening the catchment? Take a look on Google Earth. The kind of land-use which encourages land to retain its rainwater is woodland, heathland, rough pasture. That has almost all gone from the hills. Now they are dominated by those modern land-uses of improved grassland and arable. Both depend on drainage – physical drainage. That means that pipes are laid under the soil in a pattern which takes rain water away and off the farmland. As quickly as possible. That water finds its way into more pipes until it arrives in streams and ultimately rivers, like the Parrett and Tone. And it brings silt with it. Silt which ends up in those Rivers. Farmers want the water off their land as quickly as possible because they grow crops all year round. Winter wheat does not like sitting in wet soils and lots of fungi like growing on it, so farmers have to spend more money on fungicides and make less profit. Those farmers who outwinter their stock don’t like putting them out on wet pastures, because the stock cut up the grass, which costs money to repair, and sheep get foot rot if they are in wet pastures. So they drain their land to keep it as dry as possible in winter.

Incidentally farmers have just lost their right to use methiocarb as a slug pellet on potatoes, because it’s been found to poison sparrows and finches. The other 85% of the slug pellets used in the UK are metaldehyde. This finds its way from farmland into drinking water, where it is toxic. The water companies would love UK farmers not to use metaldehyde, as its a cost to them (which they pass on to us consumers). But slugs do eat crops, especially in very wet weather. Organic farmers have worked out that it is possible to grow crops without killing slugs using toxic chemicals.

Water courses are managed to speed the flow of water through them, rather than hold it back. Evidence is building that things like retaining large woody debris (or trees as they are also known) in rivers reduces the size of spate floods. Yet intelligent Cabinet Ministers like Oliver Letwin (my local MP) are still trotting out the 1960s vision where water is sped to the sea.

Oliver Letwin, MP for West Dorset, said ‘common sense measures’ need to be taken to tackle streams and rivers which are prone to flooding.

“Mr Letwin said it is a question of finding a balance between clearing rivers to keep water flowing and protecting natural habitats.

He said: “The measures will vary from location to location, but essentially, they are about clearing obstacles that have accumulated in streams and rivers.”

Science is, in these febrile times, no match for “common sense”.

So the Levels are flooding because there has been an exceptional weather event, where nearly half a metre of rain has fallen in 45 days; and because the catchment of the Levels is being managed in a way that speeds the water away from it and into the Levels as quickly as possible.

It is always a personal tragedy when houses are flooded; and for the 40 homes on the Levels that have suffered flooding, this is awful. My mum was born and grew up in a massive floodplain in Australia and lost a great deal in a flood there. But it is only 40 homes. Farmland on the Levels has been underwater since Christmas. This is obviously inconvenient for the farmers, but hey – we pay them £200 per hectare per year for every flooded field. And they are still complaining and arguing that more public money should be spent removing the water from their land – even though that water is there because we the public pay the farmers on the hills £200 per hectare, some of which will go into maintaining the drainage network which – causes the floods in the Levels.

And nature conservationists are accused of being a special interest group and of special pleading. The irony.

So if David Cameron really was serious when he said he was “not ruling out any option” and he really is looking for long term solutions, this is what I suggest.

Let’s start by getting something back for our public support for landowners.

Make payment of farm subsidies conditional on:

  • Landowners ensuring that they retain water on their land through SUDS creation, wetland restoration and creation; and sensitive stream and river reprofiling to remove deep ditches and canalised stretches.
  • Landowners reducing land-use intensity eg restoring rough grassland, heathland and woodland ,where this will reduce downstream flooding.
  • Any land drainage scheme including field drainage works subject to assessment and approval by EA.
  • Explicit recognition by Government that CAP subsidies are paid to compensate farmers for providing public goods, such as storage of flood water in the winter. Farmers in these areas should be automatically entitled to enter agri-environment agreements which help them reduce the intensity of their land-use and increase its wildlife value while also providing flood storage areas. The Ouse Washes is a great example of this.
  • The Government to ensure that the “Active Farmer Test” does not stop landowners from receiving farm subsidies while enabling natural processes to develop to help reduce downstream flooding.

There could be another reason why Cameron et al are so interested in the Levels. Somerset has 6 MPs and Five are Lib Dems. Four of these are Lib Dem/Con marginals. I’ve heard a lot of fulmination from the single Somerset Tory MP, but remarkably little from the 5 Lib Dems (one of whom, David Heath, was a Defra minister until recently: and is stepping down at the next election.)

About Miles King

UK conservation professional, writing about nature, politics, life. All views are my own and not my employers. I don't write on behalf of anybody else.
This entry was posted in agriculture, Common Agricultural Policy, David Heath, Dredging, Environment Agency, Floodplains, public goods, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to World Wetlands Day Blog: On the Level

  1. Dave Hasney says:

    Finally some logic and sense out of all the inane media coverage of political point scoring…

  2. David Harvey says:

    Best read I have had in ages, balanced and spot on.

  3. Ed Parr Ferris says:

    Just come across your blog, Miles – I’ve accidentally lost an hour or so reading through your thoughts. Very entertaining and really good to see someone putting across accurate environmental views – as against coming from some way left or way right political angle. Keep it up – I’ll keep tuning in.

  4. Come to North Wales and watch the whole process from mountain to sea condensed into just a few miles….better hurry though before it is all just bare rock.

  5. Pingback: 50,000 views | a new nature blog

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