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.