The story of the Voles, the ditch and the Prime Minister

Water_Vole_on_Boot_Hill_(5592665124)Those of us who believe that nature is important and that in order for nature to be better protected from the activities of people the best approach is to gather evidence, scientific evidence, analyse it, and present it to those in power, should heed this story.

Yesterday the Prime Minister attended the Liaison Committee, where he was questioned on a wide range of issues. The Liaison Committee comprises all the chairs of the Parliamentary Select Committees. So Neil Parish, new chair of the EFRA committee, and Devon farmer, was there, as was Labour’s Huw Irranca-Davies, new chair of the Environmental Audit Committee. You can watch the piece here from 17:22.

It was good to see Huw I-D give Cameron a hard time over the cuts in subsidies for renewable energy, though Cameron is an accomplished PR man and had the figures to hand, which he deployed. It’s a pity in these sorts of situations that the chair isn’t able to intervene and ask an independent arbiter to look at the facts on both sides and determine who is right. In normal circumstances this would be someone like the National Audit Office; but I can see it would be difficult for the NAO to have all the necessary information to hand instantly.

Davies then congratulated the PM on reappointing Natural Capital-finder General Dieter Helm to chair the Natural Capital Committee, and quoted Helm’s recent paper (which I have written about earlier this week) on flooding saying the “current approach to flooding is never going to be adequate”.

Cameron agreed “we need to do more of everything – more defences, better at river management, whole drainage and area systems work”.

As an example of more of everything he explained how the “Military came in more quickly the money was disbursed more rapidly.” He also celebrated an “attitudinal change in the Environment Agency – were trying to balance up the effect on nature and protection of property. The time for that is over. This is about protecting human life, about protecting our homes”. I want to see that continued shift

In Somerset the PM said “this is a man made environment, it was ridiculous those rivers weren’t being dredged. I threatened to go and drive the dredger myself and now we have seen those rivers dredged.”

EFRA committee chair Neil Parish, who is close to the National Farmers Union, congratulated Cameron on dredging the Somerset Levels. Parish asked “what is your long term vision plan on flooding?”

The PM explained that there would be more spending on investment, building capital schemes, bringing in partnership money, and looking again at agricultural policy, planning policy and pushing this attitudinal change he mentioned earlier. He rejected the idea that it was a bad idea to build on floodplains claiming that London was a floodplain. Only a tiny proportion of London sits in the floodplain of the Thames, perhaps he was confusing Westminster with London.

Parish pushed on arguing for more dredging, but also suggested upstream management to slow the flow including planting trees and rewetting land, but he wanted farmers to be paid extra to do such things – “more of a carrot” as he put it. Cameron agreed that a catchment approach was needed, with dredging downstream and upstream attenuation ponds and changed farming practices.  So far so vaguely promising.

But then Parish returned to the fold “are you convinced attitude of the Environment Agency towards dredging has changed? Many places in Britain need dredging”.

At this point our PM recounted a story, “an epiphany” as he put it. (here’s the verbatim), It was probably a well-versed one judging by the way he recounted it. At Kelmscott in his constituency, the Environment Agency were threatening to take legal action against a landowner who had cleared out ditches with water voles present, without EA consent. The PM had a site visit, and in front of all concerned, two water voles appeared on the bank. This, as the PM said, settled the matter. The moral of the story is that  EA red tape stopped sensible landowners doing what was needed, and the red tape didnt even do what it was supposed to do ie protect nature, because the voles were still there.

Parish leapt on the opportunity – arguing that the EA needs to pass powers for dredging and maintenance down to local drainage boards (IDBs), Local Authorities and local landowners/farmers (and this is what Truss announced last week). As he said “if there’s a tree in the river, lets have someone local come out and do the work.” Leaving aside whether the tree is helping to slow the flow or not, Parish was pushing the argument that landowners should do this work – and presumably be paid for it. Who would pay though?

Andrew Tyrie, the chair of the Liaison Committee, also leapt on the vole story, taking the opportunity for some more nature bashing.  “While looking at voles” he said sardonically, “perhaps the PM could look bats, aphids, newts and snails, all of which seem to have slowed up work at one time or another.”

The evidence, scientific evidence, that nature benefits people in a hundred different ways continues to build. The evidence that clearing out ditches insensitively or at the wrong time of year, damage water vole populations is total and absolute – there is no ambiguity. While sensitive ditch management is good for water voles, Insensitive or inappropriate ditch maintenance is one of the reasons why the Water Vole population in England has crashed. But because the PM saw two voles (who may have been running around on the bank, starving, precisely because their habitat had been destroyed by the dredging) on the bank, the case was dismissed.

And it’s easy to see how such an experience, and such a good story, could influence the PM’s views on nature more generally, as well as reinforce his own prejudices against “ridiculous” regulation. Not only his – as the same language was used by the Chancellor, when in2011 he said he was going to make sure that goldplating of EU rules on things like habitats aren’t placing ridiculous costs on British businesses”.

While we may recoil at the abject naturephobia of our political leaders, we must also recognise that they understand that a good story (even if it’s wrong) will usually trump facts or statistics.

Read about other epiphanies at Kelmscott here

Photo by Peter Trimming from Croydon, England (Vole on Boot Hill) [CC BY 2.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

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 David Cameron, deregulation, Dredging, Environment Agency, flooding and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

24 Responses to The story of the Voles, the ditch and the Prime Minister

  1. Miles,
    Yes, am intriguing debate and thank goodness for democracy. Many countries would not allow such an open dialogue with their top politician.

    It appeared from the clips that I watched that there is a tendency against nature in politics today. it is almost as though as austerity bites ever harder, attitudes towards nature and the benefits it can bring worsen and get ever lower profile. Even ridicule.

    But politics often reflect the mood of the people. What is more sad to me is that the environmental NGO’s appear to be declining in influence as well – austerity is hitting them too – few if any seem to be raising their head above the parapet to grab people’s attention nowadays – e.g. What ever happened to FoE and their campaigning for nature?

    Many Govt depts. and public bodies have been merged, ‘to improve efficiency’ maybe we need the same with environmental NGOs?


    • Miles King says:

      thanks Pete. I think FoE are one of the only ones who are regularly prepared to stick their head above the parapet, but only on a very small number of topics (bees).

      It seems to be left to the commentariat and bloggers to be picking these things up.

      • Timber says:

        How can a PPE graduate be SoS for the Environment?
        It is beyond belief that the utterly ignorant and completely unfit should hold a position like that.

    • Timber says:

      “A tendency against nature” is a understatement of monumental proportions.
      These politicians are so opposed to nature and natural processes that it is necessary for some people to be be asked to find ways to explain it to them in language that the politicians might understand. They are criminally under qualified to take on the roles and responsibilities that they have been given, and so, in a contemptuous manner, dismiss it.
      Sickening disregard for the natural world.

      • Politicians my be under qualified but probably not criminally so as they would not last long in government. It is the public who vote these people in and it is up to the public to vote more environmentally conscious ones in – but somehow I don’t that is going to happen anytime soon.

      • Roger Weeks says:

        How would people of their up-bringing have a clue about anything environmental? The crime is their assumption that nature doesn’t matter in the decision making process and the irreparable damage that they are prepared to inflict upon it. Its fiscal and fiscal analysis that is the only consideration with the arrogance of assumed superiority over those who actually know.

    • Timber says:

      And it reminds me of that moment when Eric “The Blimp” Pickles said on TV that he thought he was talking to the experts.
      He was, but he and his cronies were to busy doing those fiscal analyses to listen to what was being said by the EA: dredge but do it sensitively and in the right places.

  2. Pingback: Two epiphanies at Kelmscott | a new nature blog

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  4. Phil Aisthorpe says:

    So two voles surviving a dredging is proof that wildlife needs no protection. It’s the smug, callous indifference that I can’t stand. I can well understand that farmers and politicians don’t have any time for sentimentality in environmental decision making, but is it acceptable that bigotry and greed should be allowed to trump scientific evidence?

    • Miles King says:

      Thanks Phil. Given that Cameron’s anecdote elicited a variety of chuckles, sniggers and chortles from the assembled chairs of Parliament’s select committee, it would seem to be acceptable within our political leaders, yes.

  5. TerryR says:

    Seems our PM has grasped the concept of bio-indicators! But his application needs a little finessing. Your story reminded me of Aesop’s fable of “The Young Man and the Swallow” – one swallow does not a summer …, two voles do not a healthy watercourse… etc, etc.

  6. Pingback: The story of the voles, the ditch and the prime minister | green alliance blog

  7. oldgreywolf says:

    Reblogged this on Oldgreywolf’s Weblog.

  8. hedgiejim says:

    Reblogged this on Web of Life and commented:
    A very interesting and timely insight by Miles King into the views- and obvious disconnection- of our current Government on flooding , drainage and wildlife. Frightening

  9. hedgiejim says:

    Thanks for reporting this Miles. I work for Surrey Wildlife Trust working closely with the EA delivering projects to improve the ecological status of oyr rivers. I had some inkling things were getting better. Seems not

  10. Mark Fisher says:

    Bit late on to this article. Thanks for the link to the SNH webpage on bad riparian management as a principal threat to water voles. Clicking on the link, I was faced with a very familiar scene, of a de-vegetated burn in Scotland where subsequent earthworks have scooped out the burn, using the arisings to create a levee so that the burn is disconnected from its natural floodplain. While this is a threat to water voles, it is also a calculated action by land owners to deny beaver a foothold in the River Tay Catchment. Couple that with the slaughter of over 20 beaver by shooting since 2012, then we see the really nasty side of land users when they are inconvenienced.

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