Lost in the drainage Maize

I wrote this blog twice yesterday but both times wordpress refused to publish it. I’m trying again – third time lucky. I now know the reason it crashed. I was trying to copy a map from a pdf and upload it into the blog. I have now managed to do it.


this is the culprit. It’s a map showing where Maize is grown in England. Maize is a relatively new crop for us. In 1970 only 1400ha was grown. Now its 160,000ha, mostly to feed to cattle, and mostly to dairy cows. 10% of the crop is grown to fuel biogas plants. There’s a generous subsidy from the Government to produce biogas as a low carbon fuel. This is acting as an incentive for farmers to rent out their land to contractors who will do everything needed and ctake away the crop at the end of the season, cash on the nail. The biogas maize contractors have a vision  – to see 200,000ha of England covered in biogas maize by 2040.

Maize is a high energy crop, but it also has a large environmental footprint. Maize tends to be grown on the same fields, year after year. Large quantities of  fertiliser are applied (up to 500kg/ha), as well as herbicides and other pesticides. Even the official Fertiliser Manual notes that Maize production can lead to Nitrate and Phosphate entering local watercourses.  Maize is a warm climate grass and needs a lot of help growing in our climate. In the past the most popular herbicide used on Maize crops was Atrazine, which has been banned for the past 8 years in Europe. Atrazine is a persistent organic pollutant (POP) and an endocrine disruptor. It’s still widely used in the US. Other herbicides are now used on Maize in England. Perhaps most significantly for our story, after Maize is harvested (which can be as late as October), the stubble is left overwinter, and not ploiughed in until the following Spring. This means soils are left uncovered during the Autumn and Winter, when they are vulnerable to heavy rains creating soil run-off. Very fine particles of soil are washed down slopes from maize stubble fields into nearby streams and eventually rivers. They take some fertiliser and pesticide chemicals with them and deposit silt and agrochemicals in downstream rivers.  Whether you agree that the Parrett and Tone in the Somerset Levels need dredging or not, the silt there has left the catchment of those rivers, and one prime source is maize fields. Inspect that pesky map from Defra – look at how much Maize is grown in Somerset, Dorset and East Devon. And wonder where that other 200,000ha might go, if the Biogas Maize boys get their way.

The Night of the Long Knives

The knives are out for the Environment Agency and its outgoing chair Chris Smith. It’s easy for Tory backwoodsmen like Ian Liddell-Grainger to call for his head when they know he’s leaving anyway in the Summer, after 2 terms at the helm. The Tory apparatchiks have smelt blood – Con Home ran an opinion piece calling for the EA to be dismantled; and the Telegraph called for landowners and farmers to be given the responsibility and power to drain the land themselves.

And that has worked so well in the past hasn’t it? For 40 years after the war land drainage was controlled by Internal Drainage Boards. These were small groups of local landowners and farmers who received funding from central government, and a levy on all landowners, to spend draining land. They acted enthusiastically, dredging rivers, canalising brooks, deepening ditches and drying out the land. They succeeded in destroying a great deal of wetland wildlife habitat. When conservation tried to protect special wet places against the marauding IDB’s, this led to some of the most famous conservation battles of our times. Halvergate Marshes on the Norfolk Broads, over 5000 acres of marshland, was to be drained by the IDB. It was a combination of the Countryside Commission, Friends of the Earth and the NCC which successfully stopped this despoliation. At around the same time effigies of NCC chairman Sir Raph Verney and local NCC staff were burnt on the Somerset Levels for trying to stop the continuing destruction of the Levels’ wildlife in the name of intensive farming. Since the advent first of the National Rivers Authority, then the EA, landowners’ enthusiasm for drainage has been curtailed; even the surviving IDBs have transformed into custodians both of the farmland and also the environment.

Call me a cynic but I see the NFU and CLA quietly orchestrating these mostly unfounded and certainly misguided attacks on the EA, as a way of rolling back the regulation that has redressed the balance between intensive (unsustainable) land use and the environment sensu lato.

Instead, as I suggested on Monday, we need to look at the whole catchment, not just the floodplain, for solutions to flooding.

No-one seems to have noticed, but Natural England and the Environment Agency have been working together quite well for the past 7 years or so, on a project called Catchment Sensitive Farming. Advisors visit farmers and discuss ways that things like Agri-Enviroment funding (plus a small pot of their own for capital works) can be used to reduce the impact of intensive farming systems (like dairy) on the whole catchment. It could be rolled out much more widely, given a whole load more powers, and do some real good for a change. Better than just letting the farmers get on with it, as Owen Paterson wants to do.

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, deregulation, Dredging, Environment Agency, farming, flooding, Owen Paterson and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

32 Responses to Lost in the drainage Maize

  1. Toby Veall says:

    Thank god. A few voices of sanity emit from this ridiculous fog of misinformation re the Somerset Levels and other flooding events which may well be about to erupt. The BBC have been disgraceful in their reporting of these events.

  2. Mark Fisher says:

    Natural England has always found ways to put more money in the pockets of farmers so that they don’t have to spend their own. Thus, so that England can comply with the EU Water Framework Directive in reducing the level of diffuse pollution in rivers, groundwater and other aquatic habitats caused by farming operations, Natural England runs Catchment Sensitive Farming, a capital grants scheme that funds farmers to erect fencing along farmland watercourses to prevent livestock entering the water; put roofing over manure storage areas and livestock gathering yards to prevent run-off from rain; separate clean and dirty water in farmyards; install rainwater harvesting equipment; and create sediment ponds and install bio beds and sprayer wash-down areas to reduce pesticide run off into watercourses. All of these would seem to be me about the cost of doing business! Why they have to be grant funded seems to me more evidence of the dependency culture of farmers.

    On a wider point, I fear the conservation industry has made a cross for itself (and us) to bear in its fetishising of species and habitats in degraded landscapes. The response to George’s TV appearances on Countryfile and Newsnight gave rise to the usual vacuous claim that “Environmentalists and farmers alike recognise the role of livestock farming in the uplands and appreciate that this managed landscape needs the animals and the farmers”. More proof, if needed, of how the conservation industry has blighted any real debate about our uplands. No wonder this Government caved to the NFU and withdrew Vital Uplands. But it is not just the uplands that needs a re-evaluation of land use. I’m not sure the Norfolk Broads is the best example, considering its origins, and that it persistently suffers eutrophication from farm run-off. Having just returned from Somerset, the fact that the levels are farmed at all, let alone used for maize, seems a nonsense.

  3. Miles King says:

    Thanks Mark. I think to be fair there is relatively little Maize grown on the Levels themselves, but much more in the surrounding hills and slopes.

    You are being somewhat harsh on CSF initiatives. Bearing in mind the farmers received grants to install the drainage, canalise the watercourses, fell the trees and build silage clamps and so on, it’s not that surprising that they should receive further grant-aid to remediate the damage caused by the first set of government grants – a dependency culture, or a symbiotic relationship.

    As for livestock in the uplands, we’ll have to agree to disagree on that one. To be honest I couldnt watch the Countryfile piece all the way through. I kept flipping over and back to it, sort of horrified/fascinated, like watching a particularly scary Dr Who when I was 9. Not at all surprised at the reaction though. This is after all not just about nature, but about people and communities and their “sense of place” and they feel persecuted enough as it is.

  4. Give it a few years and none of this argument will matter – all the bloody soil from the uplands will be in the English Channel and the Irish Sea, along with half the lowland farms. Why not pop up to North Wales and watch it happen before your eyes.

  5. seasonalight says:

    Writing on the wall, Miles. The erosion of the commons, full speed ahead. Re Upland Farmers I had a very interesting discussion with my local vet (of the Black Mountains). Massively concerned about the welfare of farmers at the moment, and also of young vets moving to the area. Communities now eroded, isolation is unprecedented. Hill farming is not what it used to be. Begs the question, is it right for it to continue for the sake of people as well as non-human life?

  6. Miles King says:

    Thanks Ginny. Like the question of flood defences, society will need to decide whether it can afford to continue to fund the support of these communities and their farming systems, and that will depend on what public goods they provide.

  7. seasonalight says:

    Thanks Miles, sometimes the clash between environment and the free market is deafening.

  8. Sue says:

    Thank you Miles, for this interesting blog. A friend of ours who does surveys from the British Trust for Ornithology surveys some of the fields along the Avon on which they grow maize. He has yet to find a bird. The land is dead. So little of this information seems to reach the media. If only the Today programme could hire a presenter with scientific credentials! Perhaps then I wouldn’t hear government spokespeople skipping out of the studio with glee, having once more been let off the hook.

  9. Miles King says:

    Thanks Sue. Roger Harrabin has been doing some very good pieces for the beeb website but rarely gets on the telly, which is a shame. Instead we get endless newsreaders/correspondents standing in puddles, stoking up derdging hysteria.

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  27. Nganga says:

    maize crops also makes hay

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