It has been a bit of a surprise to see the environment figure so prominently in the election campaign over the last week or so – usually it’s so far down the list of priorities, or perhaps more accurately the list of issues that generally interest the media, that it never breaks through the surface. Thanks in part to Boris Johnson’s decision to hold a General Election in December, it was the terrible flooding in Yorkshire and Derbyshire which grabbed our attention.
The focus of that attention was Fishlake, a ominously named village neat Thorne – of the notorious Thorne and Hatfield Moors – the large lowland raised bog which was mined for horticultural peat despite a long running campaign to save what was left of it for nature. I have seen suggestions that Fishlake was originally also part of the Raised Bogs of this area, which might explain its name (the lake left after the peat was dug out) and its low lying status. It’s still not clear exactly why Fishlake flooded this year, and not in 2007 when there was a much larger flood in South Yorkshire. But what was clear was how badly the Johnson team failed to react to the flood, turning up to meet the victims over a week late, and looking, as ever, as if he was only seeking a PR opportunity.
There were the inevitable calls to “Dredge The Rivers” from farmers whose farmland had disappeared under flood water. And the conspiracy theory – from the 2014 Somerset Levels floods that it was the EU which had banned Blighty from dredging also reappeared and did the rounds. That the dredging went ahead in Somerset despite those dastardly EU dredge-police, seems to have passed that particular group of conspiracy mongers by. Quite apart from the fact that it is only likely to help in very limited circumstances, whether there will be any money available for the extremely expensive practice of dredging in post-Brexit Britain, remains to be seen.
Another interesting change in the debate has happened as a result of Brexit, namely around calls by farmers to be paid to hold flood water on their own land. It’s not clear why all farmers – especially ones which farm in the floodplain – should be expected to be paid when their farmland floods. After all, flooding is a perfectly natural event – just as natural as, say, when it doesn’t rain for weeks on end, as happened last year. Both have an effect on the production of crops. Should farmers be paid for every incident when nature affects the growth of crops – such as a pest outbreak, or disease?
It needs to be thought through carefully, but in principle, the means for paying farmers to provide “public goods” like reducing downstream flooding of urban areas, was going to be made available through the new Agriculture Bill – you remember, the one which nearly made it through Parliament before Boris Johnson closed it down so he could have this election. Whether it comes back in anything like the same shape or form is debateable. The opportunity for farmers to be paid to reduce downstream flooding may turn out to have been just a phantom.
The NFU, bless them, were arguing for payments for flood storage, upstream catchment management, and dredging – the belt and braces approach. If the likes of Jacob Rees-Mogg and Liz Truss get into serious positions of power in the next Government, they will be looking to make a quick deal with the US allowing in their super cheap food. In which case all of this will be academic as farmers will be unable to compete on price, however many rivers are dredged. But the impact of Climate Chaos is now really starting to make itself clearly heard. Potatoes are rotting in the ground, because there has been so much rain as to make it impossible to lift them – or they are so wet that its preferable to leave them in the ground, rather than risk introducing rot to those already in stores. I suspect pictures of farms surrounded by thousands of acres of flood water in Lincolnshire will become a regular sight. And what was once regarded as the best agricultural land in Britain will be grazing marsh, then salt marsh, then intertidal mud. Lincolnshire farmers may shout “build the wall” but it’s not going to happen. Still, all that’s for another election in a few years time.
On Friday last week we were treated to an auction between the Tories the LibDems and the SNP as to who could promise to plant the most number of Trees. I suppose this qualifies as an environmental story, albeit one from the Ladybird book of environmental activities. It’s easy to set targets for tree-planting and sound like you’re doing something for the environment. Michael Gove on Saturday’s Today programme pointed out that it was a Tory Government that had achieved the lofty heights of 30,000ha of new trees planted in a year, back in 1989. What he failed to mention was that this was mainly thanks to planting commercial conifer plantations on the globally important peat bogs of the Caithness Flow Country in northern Scotland. Nor did he mention that it was fuelled by tax breaks for millionaires.
I was reminded of a small but significant action at the time, when Friends of the Earth Scotland arranged for a group of kilted Scotsmen (with Piper) to head down to Buckinghamshire and plant some conifers on Terry Wogan’s lawn, as a protest. Also worth mentioning at this point is that the “Environment Secretary” at the time of this environmental outrage, was none other than Viscount Matt Ridley’s uncle, Nick Ridley. There must be something in the water under the family estate, leaking out from all that coal.
Strangely this cautionary tale of the dangers of over enthusiastic tree planting targets did not make it into the coverage. Gove did make a rather pathetic claim that the EU was to blame for the Government not meeting its tree-planting targets though. Again, somehow he managed to ignore the fact that it was his predecessor Owen Paterson who had decided not to transfer across the maximum allowed amount from direct farm subsidies (Pillar one of the CAP) into Pillar 2 (which includes grants for tree-planting) back in 2013.
The Tories have claimed they will plant 30 million trees a year, and the Lib Dems 60 million! at 1500 a hectare that translates into 20,000ha a year for the Tories and 40,000ha for the LibDems. The SNP pointed out that last year only 1400ha of new plantation was achieved in England, compared with 11,200ha in Scotland. Taking individual responsibility is a key tenet of both Conservative and Liberal political philosophy – and that’s been reflected in the Tory attitude to tree-planting – hand out small packs of trees to individuals and community groups and let them find places where they can be planted. This usually means trees end up being planted in the wrong place, where they can damage or destroy wildlife and historic features – or that they die for lack of water or poor soil. The same problem applies to small scale woodland planting supported by farm subsidies or grants. Farmers tend to plant trees where they won’t interfere with cropping or grazing – and these can often be the last places on the farm where wildlife survives – the scruffy corners, or small patches of agriculturally unproductive grassland – which happens to be rich in wildlife.
Good places to plant trees (or even better allow them to develop naturally) are in the upper catchments of rivers. Add in a few beavers and you create, for very little public cost, wooded wetlands which capture water and release slowly into the downstream rivers. The perfect was to reduce the risk of flooding. Knepp provides a very neat example of how an upper catchment willow carr can develop on former arable land.
PS Congratulations to Craig Bennett for being selected as the next Chief of the Wildlife Trusts.