Good news on nature and the environment is pretty thin on the ground these days – we obsess over how bad Brexit is going to be for nature, how Trump is going to destroy the planet and make us pay for it. But every now and again good things happen. When they do, it’s right we celebrate them and praise those who campaign and those who make the decisions.
Firstly Defra have committed £15 million to support natural flood management (NFM) projects. That Andrea Leadsom made this announcement responding to a question from former Nature minister Richard Benyon, is thanks to the campaigning skills and effort of Guy Shrubsole at Friends of the Earth. Richard has been an enthusiastic advocate for natural flood management, so it seemed proper that he should be asking the question of the Government.
Others (notably George Monbiot) have also been making the argument that NFM needs to be a much larger part of the Environment Agency (and indeed everyone’s) work on flood prevention. That Defra made the commitment to do this is also thanks to the efforts of Alistair Driver, who has recently retired as National Biodiversity Manager. I first met Alistair in 1990 and I think it’s fair to say he has done as much as anyone for nature in the UK over the past 30 years. Alistair had put a very strong case for NFM to previous floods minister Rory Stewart, before he moved to International Development.
Natural Flood Management covers a wide range of different approaches – but the principles are that by working with nature, flooding can be avoided or minimised. This doesnt mean that there is no need for hard flood defences (or dare I say dredging) anywhere every again. But by slowing the flow of water from catchments, peak flood heights can be reduced, so fewer homes and businesses get flooded. NFM is often equated with tree planting, but this is only one of the many possible approaches. Keeping water in floodplains would seem like a sensible option, rather than encouraging it to flow off them as quickly as possible (which is what you do if you want to farm intensively in the floodplain).
Floodplain meadows (yes I am a fan and sit on the Floodplain Meadows Partnership steering group) provide flood storage in the winter and are amazing places for nature – as well as producing healthy meat and dairy from their wildflower-rich hay and pastures. There are only about 1500ha of this precious habitat left in England: why not have a programme to create or restore another 1000ha in strategic locations where flood storage to reduce downstream urban flooding? The beauty of floodplain meadows is that they continue to be farmed, while providing natural flood management.
The second bit of very good news came out of Scotland – that the Scottish Government has finally decided that Beavers are a native species and therefore should not only be allowed to stay in the places where they have become established, but should also be protected. This is obviously great news for Scotland’s Beavers (they will hopefully no longer be shot), but it is also very good news for England’s existing Beavers (on the River Otter in Devon) and future populations.
It seems unlikely that the UK Government will ignore the Scottish decision on the status of Beavers. After all, Beavers were hunted to extinction in Britain – not from Scotland. If they are native in Scotland, they are native in England and Wales. While we continue to be subject to the EU Habitats Directive (on which Beavers are listed as a protected species) Beavers should now be protected by law in England and further re-introductions should be encouraged – or even required, to work towards achieving Favourable Conservation Status for this endangered animal.
There will be an inevitable outcry from the Anglers; as there was when Otters returned to Britains’ rivers. But Anglers and fish have survived the Otter’s return, as they will survive – and benefit from – the Beaver’s return.
Beavers are the ultimate Natural Flood Engineer and some projects investigating how best to use Beaver reintroductions to mitigate flooding, should also form part of this new and very welcome future for Natural Flood Management.
Great article. As an (albeit occasional) angler I welcome their return wholeheartedly. The more native wildlife in and around the river, the better.
thanks very much Ryan. Yes I have spoken to plenty of Anglers who feel the same way as you, but the Angling Trust has decided to adopt a position that Beavers are bad for fish, despite all the evidence that they are good for fish.
Yes this is good news although I’m sure that, despite any forthcoming legal protection, Beavers will still be shot in Scotland just fewer one hopes.
As far as NFM is concerned then of course this is a step in the right direction. But, floodplain meadows whilst having the potential to make some contribution are perhaps of less utility (although still plenty of beauty) than areas upstream. Firstly I suspect that by virtue of geomorphology, in many cases there is less vulnerable property downstream than upstream and secondly one of the major problems with our existing floodplains is that they are being increasingly overwhelmed by flash flood events due to continuing intensive drainage/dredging in the middle and upper catchments. These events have had major impacts on, for example, breeding wader populations.
The answer of course is to put back the middle and upper catchment riparian woodlands and then chuck a handful of Beavers in! And of course create some more Silver Meadows (remember them?)
Thanks Tim. Yes of course Floodplain Meadows are not the whole answer but they are a valuable contribution. I think middle and upper catchments have lost more wetlands (large and small) than woodlands, at least in recent centuries. I’m not familiar with Silver Meadows.
With a functioning beaver population, riparian woodlands should be far more of a woodland/wetland habitat mosaic compared to what we currently think of as ‘woodlands’. Plenty of trees but also substantial areas of open water, sedge beds, beaver meadows, regenerating scrub/coppice etc. This mix of habitats should support a substantial number of the open habitat species associated with floodplain meadows.
Miles, your articles are always interesting and informative and I enjoy reading them. But one aspect of this article has me puzzled. You say we should be celebrating the fact that Defra is committed to supporting the NFM projects with £15 million. Fair enough BUT £15 million is peanuts. Shouldn’t we be outraged rather than celebrating?
thanks Mo. As I understand it this money is to develop projects which will show how effective natural flood management can be. So it’s really the start of a long process. So no I don’t think we should be outraged. There was a possibility that no extra money would be made available for NFM, and thanks to encouragement, Defra decided that it would make it available. In these dark days, this is a victory.
That’s right Miles. It’s also worth bearing in mind that NFM interventions are generally very cheap so £15M can go quite a long way – and also what this does is set a very important precedent. Never before has the govt allocated money for delivered flood risk management schemes without it being constrained by the infamous Partnership Funding Calculator or previous cost-benefit and “number of houses protected” rules . This NFM pot is unshackled by that siloed approach.
The other thing to bear in mind is that the EA are increasingly incorporating NFM solutions into their existing FCRM capital programme, so things are generally moving in the right direction. We just need more, bigger and quicker !
thanks very much Alistair.
Thank you. Dark days indeed.
The NFM scheme is not a new idea it just hasn’t been acted on early enough. But where there’s a will…… What we need is much more, much bigger and much quicker!
thanks Mo – did you see Alistair Driver’s comment from yesterday?
This brought to mind Jeremy Purseglove’s book “Taming the Flood” which made a great impression on me over 20 years ago. I see there is a new updated edition. If only more people would read it!
Seems we can deliver ‘Net Gains’ for biodiversity and better flood management by working with nature if we can work together. Enhancing landscape aesthetics can also result, so the overall benefits for society (ecosystem services) are significant and we must somehow value them. I have often heard the case for maximising food production (as opposed to f(l)ood) which is clearly important. BUT we have obesity issues and also we waste 30% of our food, so maybe reducing our consumption and food waste whilst slowing water is a sensible mix?
Those upstream and middle areas where land is drained for maximum food production, might be the most important to slow water for flood prevention. We could create better incentives and payments for proactively undraining these areas and bring back a mix of woods, trees, grassy margins and marshland managed maybe with farmers, beavers, anglers and cattle.
Payments for Ecosystem Services (PES) as a lever might support this change and maybe the beneficiaries should all contribute in new partnerships – water companies, communities, Env Agency, Natural England, developers, tourists et al – surely this is possible?
This new fund might help us develop our thinking through testing different scenarios and it could pull in others’ support.
thanks Pete – not forgetting floodplain meadows!