Gemma Hopkinson: environmental agencies are working together to save the land

Picture: PA
Picture: PA
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We must look at all the options and joined-up solutions to come up with effective measures against future major flood events.

The downpours in December and January, and the continuing flood events in Northern England and Scotland, from Dumfries and Galloway to the North East, require all of those who are responsible for and engaged in managing the countryside to develop holistic, landscape scale solutions that place people first while taking all other factors into account.

Even as this unrelenting, wet winter rumbles on and flooding continues to threaten, a number of different solutions are being proposed by governments on both sides of the Border, and by various organisations, as to how such events can be prevented in the future. Money is being spent – the Scottish Government has made £1 million available through its Agricultural Floodbank Restoration Grant Scheme – but flooding is unpredictable, localised, and at a catchment-scale. Too often, steps taken in response to events are overdue – such as dredging and pumping the Somerset Levels – when we should be thinking about flood risk in the context of overall better countryside management; prevention rather than cure.

Many of the proposed solutions hold water. Some of the factors attributed as causal to these devastating flood events do not, such as grouse moor management or deer numbers. If they do have even a small part to play then that claim should at least have some science to support it.

Rather than spuriously pointing the finger at individual land uses, the reality is that where there are a combination of factors such as those seen on the River Dee in December, where the highest water levels since 1928 were recorded – incessant, heavy rainfall, warm temperatures causing snowmelt, and already 
saturated soils – then water levels have no option but to rise, and rise rapidly, and flooding is inevitable.

Flooding of this severity, with fast-flowing water and rapid bank and soil erosion, causes severe damage to everything in its path; not just to property and infrastructure – roads, tracks, bridges, buildings – but also to fields and grazing, dumping stones, rocks, rubbish and debris, tearing down fences, destroying crops and drowning stock. As we saw, a stretch of the A93 west of Ballater simply disappeared into the river. Flooding, and the force of water, undoes everything that farmers manage diligently – topsoil and nutrients stripped from fields, ditches blocked, water quality compromised. It undoes what conservationists work for too – both in and alongside rivers and streams, tearing down trees and tearing up habitat, wrecking spawning grounds, wreaking havoc. There is the human cost – loss of or threat to life, stress, loss of belongings, inconvenience, businesses challenged because of closed roads, loss of power or internet, or all of these.

Everyone recognises that infrequent flood events are likely to become more frequent. So where does an organisation such as the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust fit in terms of working with others to find workable solutions?

NFU Scotland has called on SEPA and the Scottish Government to allow farmers a fasttrack process to undertake remedial action, and indeed, there are works such as repair with like-for-like materials of flood defences that have failed or washed away, dredging straightened drainage ditches, and removing vegetation and fallen trees that requires no license. Sustainable forestry organisation Confor has said part of the solution lies in planting more trees. Environment research institute the James Hutton Institute has called for “joined-up action” too. The farming community has a major role to play and the debate about flooding fields for flood defence has a long way to go. The best quality farmland is often that most at risk from flooding. One suggestion has been tabled of £200/hectare as a reasonable grant to flood farmland and, indeed, there is already EU money available for farms to be used to hold back flood water. Last year, conservation body the WWF said that farmers should receive subsidy only on condition that they allowed their land to flood.

At its demonstration farm at Loddington, Leicestershire, the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust runs the Water Friendly Farming Project with neighbouring landowners and farmers over three river catchments and an area of some 30sq km.

Among the Project’s many objectives, GWCT work monitors water quality in each tributary in each of the catchments, as well as surveying aquatic invertebrates and plants in ditches, ponds and streams. The work looks at many options that could be more widely adopted on farms such as ditch dams, in-field floodwater ponds and field drain interceptor traps to capture silt, sediment and nutrients, and ways to prevent soils leaving fields in the first place. Other measures include fencing animals away from streams, increasing earthworm numbers, reducing soil compaction and diverting storm water away from slurry storage tanks.

GWCT’s Water Friendly Farming Project works closely with farmers by adopting measures that are compatible with, and wherever possible beneficial to, their businesses. In future the project will also explore the benefits of this approach to managing flood risk in urban areas downstream.

As so often, when nature and land management collide, there is a balance to be struck – between maintaining productive farmland for healthy cropping and stock, and flora and fauna, while also providing a line of defence for people and property; and a balance between keeping soil and nutrients where they are needed whileminimising the risk of run-off damaging the aquatic environment and compromising water quality.

There is also the question of looking ahead and striking a balance between working with those factors that we can manage – tree planting, rerouting and reforming watercourses and meanders, flood plans, and peatland restoration, for example, to counter those – like extreme weather events – that we cannot.

• Gemma Hopkinson, Policy Officer, Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust, Scotland