Somerset Levels Update: Reflections on Flooding

It’s not just “You forgot the birds” who have been attacking RSPB recently.

Earlier this year, they were blamed by a number of people, for causing the flooding in the Somerset Levels and Moors. Christopher Booker, in the Telegraph, was particularly venal in his accusations that RSPB had been the criminal mastermind behind the flooding. Others joined in, including local Tory MP Ian Liddell-Grainger.

The RSPB have sought to counter this by releasing a studied, thoughtful and balanced report on flooding, specifically on the Levels, specifically last winter, but also more generally. There are pieces from Somerset Levels farmers and residents, academics, Paul Cobbings from the National Flood Forum; and David Thompson, Adaptation sub-committee, Committee on Climate Change. He noted that

every 10 hectare block of damaged land under maize will shed over a million litres of silt-laden, muddy water, which clogs rivers downstream.”

Just the other day, a river charity called for more action to be taken against farmers who leave Maize fields that wash soil away when it rains.

RSPB now believe that dredging the tidal Somerset Levels rivers was the right thing to do; and it hasn’t had any impact on the bird value of the levels.

The Levels flooding was disastrous to the people it affected, though it appears not all the flooding was accidental. In one case a farmer, apparently concerned about his village flooding, broke the locks on a sluice and opened it, then vandalised it so it couldnt be closed. Of course, it’s difficult to tell how much difference one sluice gate would have made, with so much water  – but several residents think it led to their houses flooding, unnecessarily.

Some have argued that the introduction of Raised Water Level Areas (RWLAs) in the Somerset Levels in the 1990s contributed to the increase in flooding problems experience since then. The Somerset Levels Drainage Boards commissioned the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology to investigate whether there was any evidence to support this view. Their conclusion was that the RWLAs made no contribution to flooding events.

Local Natural England manager Mark Jones said

” Raised water level areas have been a part of conservation management of the wetland wildlife interest of Somerset since the early 1990s. These schemes are funded through the agri-environment budget and as well as underpinning the conservation of the wetland they reduce flood risk by providing farmers in some of the wettest areas with a diversification opportunity. All of the raised water level area schemes were subject to a flood risk assessment prior to being implemented.

Due to concerns raised during last winter’s flooding, the Somerset Consortium of Drainage Boards commissioned the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology to undertake a full review of the Flood Risk associated with water level management for conservation and agriculture. The assessment concluded that winter raised water level areas have only a very minor impact (0.6%) on large flood events. Water levels for agriculture in summer occupy larger volumes (3.5%), but these are still small compared to volumes of water stored on the moors during major flood events. The report has been reviewed by the Local Authority Community Scrutiny Committee which resolved that “the research sponsored by the IDB, …shows that prolonged winter penning levels have miniscule impact on the potential for flooding.”

It is useful to note that the raised water levels areas, some of which were underwater for the longest periods, were least damaged by the prolonged flooding and recovered fastest.”

Others suggested that the flooding of the Somerset Levels last winter had a catastrophic effect on the wildlife of the Levels as well as flooding farmland and people’s homes. Another recently published report from Natural England has undermined this suggestion. Research carried out after this winter’s floods found that

  • The ancient wildlife-rich wet meadows and pastures of the Somerset Levels and Moors recovered quickly from the flooding and showed little impact.
  • The very important wildlife associated with the ditches had been unaffected.
  • there was no overall effect on the number of wintering water birds and waders.
  • There was a slight dip in the number of breeding waders in Summer 2o14.
  • There was no impact on the soil and earthworm numbers had recovered quickly.
  • there was anecdotal evidence that some widespread small mammals had been affected; and insect numbers were down.

In a way, this is what you would expect with a winter flood. The wildlife of the Levels is adapted to wet conditions and winter flooding has little impact on these species because of their adaptations. Plants of wet meadows and pastures do not do anything in the winter, so they are not affected even if under water for weeks at a time.

On the other hand, intensively managed improved grasslands dominated by one or two species like rye grass and white clover, neither of which are adapted to the wet, died off across hundreds (thousands?) of hectares. This will have been very expensive for those farmers on the levels who have agriculturally improved their pastures, but not affected those who hadn’t, which is a strong argument for restoring intensively managed land on the levels to its former extensive state.

Where does this leave the people and the wildlife of the Somerset Levels?

Hopefully the dredging that has happened this year will have reduced the chances of the months long flooding that happened last winter. Only time will tell on that.

Nothing has happened (that I can see) to reduce the continuing intensification of the farming in the catchment of the Levels. While the soil flowing off the maize fields of Somerset will not find its way into the tidal stretches of the Parrett and the Tone, it will continue to silt up the upper stretches; and calls for more dredging will continue. The area of Maize in Somerset continues to grow. In March the Adaptation Sub-Committee of the Committee on Climate Change called for detailed mapping of land-use in the Somerset Levels catchment as a starting point for addressing the impact of intense landuse on flooding. Has this been done?

People who have been flooded out have still not returned to their homes, while insurance companies quibble and then refuse flood insurance, even after flood defences have reduced the risk. Talk about adding insult to injury.

The wildlife of the Somerset Levels survived the flood, pretty much intact, but intensive agriculture there took a beating. This may cause farmers to consider which route to adopt for the future, given that climate change is here and these events are likely to get more serious and more frequent.

In the long term, there may be no choice but to retreat from the Levels. If that happened, the justification for continuing the expensive, centuries old water level management, may be lost; and it would be time for beavers to return to the Somerset Levels.



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, flooding, Maize, Natural England, RSPB, Somerset Levels, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Somerset Levels Update: Reflections on Flooding

  1. Heard “Farming Today” on radio 4 this morning. Enough to catch one flood-hit farmer talking about how he’s going to “spray off” a field that had been flooded, plough it and put it down to maize to kill off anything else … sigh … demanding more dredging and warning of “fetid swamps” otherwise. No mention of the massive costs of all this to the taxpayer, insurance and so on, of course.

    Listen again:

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