Keeping a Level Head


A Somerset Levels Wet Meadow (c) Miles King

I feel almost reluctant to put pen to paper (metaphorically) on the issue of the floods and the Somerset Levels, because so much has been written or spoken in recent days fromn a position of almost complete ignorance. And I sit somewhere on that particular spectrum, though I have some knowledge from a nature conservation perspective.

What I see is various interest groups seeking to make political capital out of the floods, out of people’s misery. The Floodgate Blamegame has started. It kicked off with Eric Pickles, Communities and Local Government Secretary on Sunday. He had been given temporary leadership for flooding, while Owen Paterson was having his retina re-attached. It’s entirely possible that Pickles, known as a ruthless political operator, saw an opportunity to take some ground from Defra, while Paterson was down and out of the ring. CLG and DEFRA come from a long line of competing departments with a big overlap between them. Anyone remember MAFF and DETR? Using his new found position as Floods Tsar, he laid into the Environment Agency with characteristic malice, on the Andrew Marr Show. He gave a non-apologetic apology on behalf of the Government, who he implied had been given duff advice by the experts at the EA.

EA chair Chris Smith came in for some particularly nasty attacks from the Bridgewater MP Ian Liddell-Grainger, who was quoted as calling Smith a “little git” and claiming he was going to flush Smith’s head down aloo if he found him while Smith was visiting the Levels. Liddell-Grainger lives on the edge of Dartmoor, so it’s unlikely he would have found Smith there.

Various Tory members of the commentariat and thinktank-apparatchiks are already using the floods as an opportunity to revive their quango-bashing from a few years ago. “Look” they cry, we told you to get rid of all these quangoes (like the EA).  Calls to return flood management to landowners continue. Thankfully the EA board, including some individuals with serious political clout, have fought back at personal attacks on their chair and implied criticism of their staff. Pickles had to shamelessly deny he had ever criticised Smith or the EA, when answering an emergency question in the Commons on Monday.

Clive Aslet, Country Life Editor, writing in the telegraph has blamed the RSPB for the floods. He argues (and I am sure plenty agree with him) that RSPB and other conservation bodies, in a conspiracy with the EA and NE, and the connivance of the EU, are turning the countryside into a playground for nature lovers. Presumably if they were turning it into a playground for country sports he wouldn’t complain so much, or at all.

And this is the other subtext. There are plenty who would love to see the UK walk away from our obligations under the Birds and Habitats Directives (the Nature Directives, including of course our very own Chancellor of the Exchequer, who regards them as a barrier to economic growth. Some are pointing to the way the Somerset Levels are managed to comply with the Nature directives – forcing water levels to be maintained at higher levels than they were in the bad old days. Arch climate-change sceptic and Europhobe Somerset dweller Christopher Booker has already espied an EU Conspiracy to Flood the Levels. It is difficult to believe that someone could get the story quite so wrong as Booker has. But his agenda is clear and he will make up the story to fit his needs. The idea that the control over drainage on the Levels has been whisked away from the farmers by the evil Baron EA is laughable. The Somerset Drainage Boards Consortium work hand in glove with the EA. It’s as likely that the SDBC were as frustrated by the EA budget cut as the EA were.

A couple of Lords have complained that the Dawlish railway collapse was down to a delayed bird survey on the Exe Estuary SPA, which prevented an artificial beach having been created in front of the railway embankment, to stop wave damage. “Its Birds before People” they say. Well birds before railways anyway. One of the Lords was a former railway industry executive.

The Steart Peninsula is another “Birds before People” story that has been rumbling for a while, with the aforesaid Mr Liddell-Grainger doing a lot of rumbling. I dare you to read his blog about it, but I won’t be held responsible for any ill health you may suffer as a result of reading it. If you looked at this story through squinty eyes you could force yourself to believe that the EA spent £20 million creating a bird reserve instead of spending the money to STOP THE LEVELS FLOODING. The reality though is that Steart was compensation for areas of the Severn Estuary SPA that will be lost due to flood defences elsewhere. This is another consequence of the Nature Directives.

And I think this is perhaps the most worrying of all – that UKIP has jumped on this bandwagon and is now thumping the tub marked “EU Conspiracy.” Watch this video, purportedly made by an “independent” film-maker. I have been told that they are interviewing worried locals on the Levels, scaring them and trying to persuade them that the flooding of the Levels is a deliberate EU-led conspiracy. I think they are referring to the Raised Water Level Areas, which have been around for about 15 years. Farage has blamed immigrants for the flooding, not unexpectedly. What else is there to say? The amazing thing is that people actually believe him.

I thought I would try and find some historical perspective on all this.

The Somerset Levels flood is a very bad one yes and I would be horrified if I lived on the Levels. I was interested to discover that most farm buildings on the low lying Levels and Moors are 19th or 20th century. Even after 2000 years of drainage works, its only very recently in historical terms that the lowest land on the Levels was habitable all year round.

Previously the meadows and pastures were used in the summer only, with stock being wintered on the nearby hills.  It was in the 20th century and particularly after the war, that intensive agriculture came to the Levels, which had been dairy and beef country for a long time.

What had been a landscape of wet meadows, pastures and peaty “moors” (both Fen and Raised Mire) was rapidly disappearing, replaced by improved grassland and industrial peat extraction. Armed with a few teeth, thanks to the 1981 Wildlife and Countryside Act, the Nature Conservancy Council tried to stop the losses by notifying large areas of what remained as SSSI. This led to the infamous effigy burning and very bad blood between Levels farmers, peat-diggers and conservationists. To assuage the farmers, they were paid very handsomely, through compensatory management agreements, not to intensify management on the SSSIs.

This didn’t go down well with the farmers who had already destroyed the wildlife value of their land – they wanted a slice of the pie. To assuage these farmers, the Government of the time (1987) created the Somerset Levels and Moors Environmentally Sensitive Area, covering nearly 27000ha of land. This paid out the most generous Agri-Environment Subsidies of all the many ESAs in England. I think if memory serves correctly it was the most lucrative AE scheme in the whole of Europe. For continuing to farm in a less intensive way, farmers were paid, on top of their production subsidies, over £300/ha per annum basic area payment., plus all sorts of top-ups for this and that, and even more if they were in a Raised Water Level Area. These farmers were being paid a vast amount of money NOT to intensify their land – by the European Union. Yes, the EU. But the wildlife continued to decline – because of very generous MAFF grants to install super duper new drainage pumps, drying out the wet meadows and pastures. This is how the Raised Water Levels Areas came into being – farmers were paid to be farmers, then paid to be in the ESA, then paid another £170/ha to turn off the pumps (which MAFF had paid for).

I did some botanical survey on the Levels about 12 years ago. The raised water level areas had been pretty disastrous for the plant communities – they had been too wet all year round. The wet meadows of the Levels are very unusual, but have affinities to Lowland Flood Meadows and Flood Pastures. The Excellent Floodplain Meadows Partnership is the leading expertise on flood meadows and pastures and are researching how the Levels Meadows relate to other wet grasslands. When managed well they are exceptionally rich in wildlife as well as being wonderful historic artefacts. And they produce high quality food and many other public goods beside. What’s not to like?

The last of the ESA agreements were renewed in 2004 – they are 10 year agreements. They run out this year. How many Levels farmers (outside SSSIs) will continue to receive such generous subsidies is anyone’s guess, but it will undoubtedly be far fewer than in 2004.

I cannot  but wonder whether it is a coincidence that once again the balance between wildlife and farming on the Levels has come to the nation’s attention.

Oh and Dredging? There are definitely some watercourses in the Levels that need de-silting. Its all laid out in the Water Level Management Plans. As I explained last week, silt is borne down to the Levels from unsustainable farming in the catchment. The Levels are like one big water meadow and managing the water levels is crucial to their conservation value and for continued farming. But dredging the tidal Parrett and Tone is another matter altogether. As New Scientist (I can hear Pickles groaning now – “not more experts!”) said,  it would have made no difference because so much rain has fallen.

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, anti conservation rhetoric, anti-environmental rhetoric, Common Agricultural Policy, Environment Agency, European environment policy, Floodplains, grasslands, meadows, Owen Paterson and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

15 Responses to Keeping a Level Head

  1. seasonalight says:

    So when sea levels rise high enough to flood many of our coastal lowlands, due to climate change,this will also be an EU conspiracy…..

  2. Miles,
    The narrative on birds/wildlife before people also fits very nicely with the general de-regulation/red tape challenge language still being actively pursued by Westminister.
    The Natura Directives have clauses that allow for essential works like maintaining railways / flood defences etc as long as they are carried out for reasons of overriding public interest. Authorities like Network rail (and until not so long ago) the EA itself, have always been reluctant to use the clause because to do so requires accepting that their activities will cause some environmental damage.

    On the Levels , I suspect the Government will regret allowing a small group of NFU officials and one MP to set the tone for their engagement with flooding when the situation is as bad as it is now. Lets hope they don’t waste too much money really dredging or exporting silt and soil. I guess they could give it back to the farmers upstream that donated it to the levels drainage ditches in the first place?

    • Miles King says:

      thanks very much.

      You raise an interesting point about what to do with the dredgings. These used to spread on fields, but they are now considered toxic waste (heavy metals, persistent pesticides) – what would be done with the dredgings and who would pay for their disposal?

  3. Steve Cheney says:

    Sadly, if you can’t sum this up in a sentence, it will always be ignored in favour of something that can be.

    • Miles King says:

      I do that quite a lot on twitter Steve. This blog is for a little bit more depth.

      Most politicians will read a side of A4 if you thrust it into their hands and explain why its important.

  4. The rightists’ Communist nature reserve argument doesn’t hold water. The northern part of the levels, ie north of the Polden hills, hasn’t flooded as much as the area around the Tone and Parret, but it has more nature reserves. There is a patchwork of small and large reserves on the old peat extraction sites between the river Brue and South Drain near Glastonbury, you can see this on google maps. Yet if you go to the RSPB website and check out the reserves you can find that Ham Wall (north) has only recently flooded (after two months of rain) while Greylake, near Burrowbridge (south), flooded much earlier.
    And you are right about farmers being paid. They have even been paid recently to flood their land, west sedgemoor had flooded fields as late as May last year. Funny that the NFU weren’t up in arms when its members were being paid. It is also silent about the lack of dredging of all the local ditches, which is the responsibility of the landowners. This is necessary to get the water into the embanked rivers.
    And you made a good point about the age of the buildings. Traditionally most of the villages were on small hills or ridges and there for about a thousand years. But one of the villages featured a lot, Moorland, is quite new, it is actually very near the juncture of where the River Cary used to flow into the Parret, about half mile downstream from the latter’s junction with the Tone. The Cary was canalised into the KIng Sedgmoor drain 200 years ago but I expect the land around Moorland to still reflect the junctures.

  5. Rob says:

    Opportunity to comment on the Somerset Levels and Moors 20 Year Action Plan (which is in development):
    Comments to be received by Friday 21st February.

  6. John Stone says:

    Great post Miles. I too am very interested to know what is to be done with the dredged spoils. It surely cannot be carted off as wet waste to landfill, and will no doubt contain all manner of phytotoxins, If the dredgings are to be put to land, then shallow bunded lagoons will need to be created to dewater the spoil over time taking farmers fields out of productivity for a long period. Will they expect compensation? Also one assumes the volume of the silts extracted would require an enormous surface area of land, and then of course bird nesting season is approaching what about the impacts of dredging / disposal here?

    That aside, I have my reservations whether they will be able to get machinery into certain areas for quite some time given the saturated conditions..


  7. Miles King says:

    thanks John. There have been various comments on the blogosphere about the EU being to blame for the flooding by restricting the after-use of river dredgings. But the issue is a serious one – while ditch dredgings are deposited adjacent to the ditches this is not possible on artificial banked rivers like the Parrett and Tone. These dredgings used to be dumped at sea but that is no longer allowed due to the damage done to marine life and fisheries. This is one of the reasons why dredging has gone out of favour – once it was realised that it only produced problems elsewhere, as well as not providing any long term solution to flooding.

  8. Rob says:

    Some useful links:

    A Snipe’s Tale: Parts 1-5. Blogs by RSPB’s Tony Whitehouse & Peter Exley on Somerset Levels…

    Dutch could help stop Midlands floods misery
    23 February 2014 Last updated at 12:44 GMT
    As hundreds of people in the Midlands continue to deal with the misery of flooding, the Netherlands is pioneering the field of flood-proof homes.
    Projects include lowering dykes and deliberately flooding certain areas.
    But to create this space, the Dutch had to evict more than 200 home owners and farmers.
    Midlands Today’s David Gregory-Kumar has been finding out if these forms of flood prevention could work in the UK.

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

  10. Pingback: Rampisham Down and Lodge Hill demonstrate that Natural England must Notify every site which qualifies as SSSI | a new nature blog

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