Wednesday, 26 July 2017

100 priority questions for landscape restoration in Europe

How can biodiversity and ecosystem processes be restored to degraded landscapes across Europe at a time when there are profound changes of many kinds, from climate change to social and economic upheavals? Please send your questions by 10 August 2017 - read guidance below first. Thanks!

Academics, practioners and policy analyists are repeating a research-agenda-setting exercise to identify the 100 priority research questions, that will help shape research to inform policy and action over the next decade.

Restoring biodiversity and ecosystem processes to degraded areas is recognised as an important part of conservation strategies. The Convention on Biological Diversity Strategic Plan aims to restore 15% of degraded land by 2020 (Aichi Target 15), a goal reflected in the EU’s Biodiversity Strategy (Target 2). Recent reviews have identified habitat fragmentation as a major cause of biodiversity loss in Europe, and recommended landscape-level approaches, based on creation of ecological networks, to help halt and reverse biodiversity decline.

Through this exercise the aim is to identify the questions which, if answered, would make the most difference to the restoration of European landscapes. Questions should be relevant to European landscape restoration, and may relate to areas including, but not limited to: policy, culture, economics, equity, sustainable development, governance, planning, connectivity, reintroductions, climate change and resilience, ecosystem services, or habitat management.

Links to the output of the previous exercises carried out in 2006 are here and in 2008 here 

Framing your questions - guidance
Please send your questions to me at with "Landscape Questions" in the subject header. Please provide your full name, any affiliation and phone number.

In order to be a contender for the final list, it is important that questions satisfy a number of criteria. Please ensure that questions:

·         Are answerable through a realistic research design.
·         Have a factual answer that does not depend on value judgments.
·         Address important gaps in knowledge.
·         Are at an appropriate spatial and temporal scale and scope
o   Not too general: i.e. a research programme could make progress towards answering each question. Questions such as ‘How could we improve forest restoration in Europe?’ are too general.
o   Not too limited in scope: i.e. answering a question should have a significant impact on the effectiveness of landscape restoration. For example, questions about the specific ecology of a single species in a particular place might not have enough wider significance.
·         Fall within the scope of the exercise
·         If related to impacts and interventions, contain a subject, an intervention, and a measurable outcome.

Tuesday, 19 April 2016

Wising up on land use and adaptation - more musings on flooding

This post was written at the end of the 2014-15 winter. Since that time parts of the UK experienced yet another "wettest period on record" with widespread flooding in the north of England during December and January 2015-16.

The record-breaking wild, wet and windy winter of 2014-15 was probably a game changer for many reasons. The onslaught of storms fired a series of warning shots showing what climate change probably has in store for us. Serious and prolonged flooding, especially in the Somerset Levels, where about 6,500 ha (c.10% of the area) was under water for several months, and along the Thames in Berkshire, revealed a paucity of resilience at all levels. Despite having successfully defended many thousands of properties from flooding this winter, the Environment Agency became the scapegoat, blamed for allowing the flooding to occur because of something it hadn't done, or in some cases, had done (such as creating the Jubilee River which successfully protected Maidenhead from flooding). It received (in my view) an undeserved kicking from many individuals and some politicians for failing to dredge rivers or install sufficient flood defences, when it has been forced by Government to making swingeing cuts, affecting front line staff and capital expenditure. Further cuts of 1550 staff are planned for the coming financial year, although the flooding crisis has put a consultation on this temporarily on hold.

In the Somerset Levels, where the clamour for river-dredging has been particularly loud, it was subsequently revealed that the EA had agreed that some dredging was needed, but didn't have enough money, while local authorities had refused to contribute. Meanwhile, in recent years, the same local authorities have granted planning permission for new houses in areas that were under water for several months. Andrew Gilligan, writing for The Telegraph, reveals that land next to Curry Moor had also been designated by Taunton Deane Borough Council for new homes while "the neighbouring council, Sedgemoor, had identified sites in at least four villages for housing, even though all are within the highest-risk flood zone". Gilligan also describes the scale of projected housebuilding in areas flooded by the Thames. While most would agree that local authority planning policy is as leaky as a sieve, it is driven by national housebuilding targets and the Coalition Government's dogmatic pursuance of economic recovery based on a stripped-down planning system that has little ability to refuse permission for new homes, even if they are going to be under water within months of occupancy. Government has been a clear and guilty accomplice in the scale of damage caused by floods but the insurance industry is now beginning to call the shots. This is hardly surprising, given the estimated £400m of payouts anticipated from damage this winter and warnings from the UK Climate Change Impact Assessment that nearly 1 million properties are likely to be at risk of flooding during the 2020s. There is no doubt that the Government will continue to support building houses in areas of flood risk, such as at Ebbsfleet (North Kent) where it has announced it is to support the development of a new garden city. The area is considered as being at high risk of tidal flooding.

Magicians Paul Daniels' and Debbie Magee's luxury Thames-side home was one of many threatened by the overflowing river (they kept theirs dry by continous pumping), and they too accused the Environment Agency of causing the severe flooding by failing to dredge the river (thus the water would be instantly magicked away, wouldn't it?). Politicans were caught back-footed, with some (including Communities Minister Eric Pickles, and Somerset MP Ian Liddell-Grainger) behaving in ways that were wholly inappropriate to their status. IL-G, who can at best be described as a baying buffoon, said that EA Chairman Chris Smith   " is a coward, a little git and I'll flush his head down the loo". The TV satire Spitting Image would have had a field day with the lot of them.

The voices of reason from ecologists, hydrologists, engineers, climate-change scientists, the Government's own independent advisers (including the Emvironment Agency and Natural England) and independent commentators, such as George Monbiot, had, until the latter stages of this event, been drowned out by the vociferous minority interests of farmers, the National Farmers' Union and ill-informed politicians (as well as traumatised flood victims) seemingly incapable of taking in the wider picture and the alternative view. However, evidence (much of it collected thanks to Government-funded research, work by the EA, NE and a few water companies) shows that river-dredging and hard defences are out-dated and expensive one-trick ponies that will often not work and in some cases make things worse. For these reasons, engineers and ecologists agree their use should be limited and targeted in places where sufficient evidence is able to show clear cost-benefit. (More on this via G Monbiot here.)

The scale of the damage, from farmland and houses underwater for three months, to the destruction (yet again) of the main coast rail line at Dawlish, and disappearing houses at Hemsby, show that choices will need to be made.  There is not going to be enough cash to defend every vulnerable house, industrial estate, field or farm from the floods, or every crumbling coast from rising sea levels and increasing storm surges. As part of catchment-based flood mitigation plans, and as now indicated in the emerging action plan for the Somerset Levels, water will need to be held back upstream, using ecological restoration techniques and by reversing some of the inappropriate land drainage that causes silt and nutrient-laden soil to devastate land and settlements downstream. This is where the winter storms have become a game changer - upstream measures now have a credible place at the table, helped by the mounting evidence of benefit and greater media coverage given to environmental scientists who can describe what is needed, and warn against what may be unaffordable and unachievable.

On 5 March,  a clear reality check was offered to the Government by Professor Sir John Krebs. Writing to Environment Minister Owen Patterson on behalf of the Adaptation Sub Committee of the UK Climate Change Committee, Sir John offered five key points to consider in relation to Somerset Levels action plan: (1) the plan needs to recognise rising sea levels and flood risk associated with climate change; (2) it should consider the range of drivers operating on the Levels; (3) the plan should be sustainable and cost-effective; (4) it should focus on adaptation and be responsive to new evidence; (5) responsibility for delivering and funding the plan should be shared. In the letter, Sir John makes pointed comments about exploitation of Level's peatlands (which have shrunk as a result and further lowered land levels), the appropriateness of farm subsidies and the need for a review of land-use practices in the catchment. In an interview with The Times (reported in The Western Daily Press) Lord Krebs more explicitly suggested that "It may well be the case that there are areas too expensive to defend". Needless to say, his honesty was not welcomed by either Somerset farmers nor the local MP.

This was preceded, in February, by a letter written to The Telegraph by seventeen professional bodies, representing engineers, ecologists, hydrologists, surveyors, landscape architects, foresters, arboriculturists and other environmental scientists, calling on the Government to act on knowledge and best practice, and have a joined-up strategy for managing water, to include soft-engineering solutions. Growing experience in such techniques, such as piloted in Exmoor and at Pontbren, shows that farming and ecological restoration are not mutually exclusive, although there will certainly need to be a major rethink about intensive farming practices that are causing soil erosion and unacceptable levels of runoff. The dialogue about what to do about this in England has come in the nick of time, as Natural England is putting together proposals for the new environmental land management scheme paid for out of Pillar 2 of the Common Agricultural Policy. This scheme, and a much more comprehensive approach to Catchment Sensitive Farming, could offer the 'carrots' but the stick of regulation will still be needed, coupled with much better monitoring and enforcement of basic environmental protection measures that will act to dissuade farmers from causing significant damage to land and rivers. There is plenty of evidence showing that neither carrots or sticks are working across much of the countryside right now, not helped by the Coalition Government's  wish to strip down regulation, cut back regulatory agencies and let everyone police themselves. In the future farm subsidy cash (up to £200 per hectare) must come with an absolute requirement that those in receipt of it practice sustainable land use. This requirement however, will not be met unless there is a comprehensive extension programme in place with one-to-one advice available, and support for the production of farm- and operations-based environmental improvement plans that farmers and their contractors will need to sign up to.

Back along the coast, the National Trust has already begun to face up to the fact that some of our favourite coastlines are being rapidly re-shaped. Its 2005 Shifting Shores report identified 608km of coastline it owns as being significantly affected by coastal erosion with 169 sites likely to be lost during this century. 10% could lose between 100-200m width of coast, with a further 5% likely to lose 200m or more. This winter's storms also indicate that the rate of loss originally anticipated could be much greater, should such storms become more commonplace. Storm surges in January this year broke up the shingle bank at Spurn Head, where dunes were also completely washed away. The shingle bank, defending the Norfolk Wildlife Trust's Cley Marshes nature reserve in Norfolk was also breached, flooding the reserve and washing boardwalks away.
Langland Beach, Gower, less the sand. M Crafer, Feb 2014.
Most of the sand did come back in 2015, but not all of it.

There were huge strandings of bivalves on The Gower. Local resident and ecologist, Mike Crafer, reported that at least one of the smaller beaches there had disappeared with almost 3m-depth of sand gone. See Patrick Barkham's 7 February column in The Guardian for more opinion on the future shape of Britain's coast.

Experience with both flooding and coastal erosion during the 1990s and to the present, further underline the need for the Government to kick off an honest debate with the public, not only about adaptation, but planning for a future when some vulnerable coastal and floodplain settlements, farmland and nature reserves, will not be able to survive as climate change impacts become more severe. Heritage and conservation bodies have much to lose; in some places they may not be able to gain new ground when long-established nature reserves lose out to either the sea or inland floods. The shape of Britain will change, and so will its wildlife.

Nature-friendly farmers abandoned by Defra & Natural England?

One of my favourite farms in England sits high up (about 1000 feet to be precise) on the limestone above Settle, not far from the world-famous Malham Cove. Lower Winskill is very different from many of the farms surrounding it or elsewhere in the Yorkshire Dales National Park, because it is full of wild flowers that have been encouraged to be at their best (and increase) thanks to the careful stewardship of this land by its owner, Tom Lord. Tom's farm is a beacon of excellence for nature, and his work here has been made possible by 20-years of very special "agri-environment" agreements made with successive government agencies charged with encouraging farmers to do the right thing by nature. Currently, the Higher Level Stewardship Scheme  provides a payment to Tom for maintaining and restoring flower-rich pastures and meadows, and using a variety of livestock species (cattle and sheep) grazed at the right time, to produce the "goods". These include rarities such as Alpine Lady's Mantle and Alpine Cinquefoil as well as plentiful numbers of other flowers, such as Limestone Bedstraw, Cowslip and Devils'-bit Scabious. In summer, his fields are alive with butterflies, including the scarce Northern Brown Argus.

Weed infested flowerless upland limestone grassland
in Swaledale (2015)
These grants have been vital for Tom - without it he would have had to fall into the intensive-farming trap that most others have done and nature would not have been given the chance to remain and recover. A week last year spent walking in the Dales proved how successful he has been; while I visited some stunning limestone landscapes, their grasslands were poor in flowers with too many sheep all over them like a white rash. The pastures had become flowerless for a variety of reasons. Many "free-ranging" sheep for much of the year means a high input of dung and urine - flowers don't like nutrients. Heavy grazing throughout spring and summer also means no flowers, and fewer insects and butterflies as their foodplants are not permitted to thrive. Intolerance of the fox, both associated with sheep-farming and adjacent grouse moors, means too few predators and too many rabbits: their digging and grazing (20 rabbits is the equivalent of one sheep) has no doubt helped the spread of pasture weeds, especially Creeping Thistle. So no surprises then, to see men (no women were seen) out on quad bikes spraying off these weeds in the middle of summer. The herbicides used against thistles also kill other wild flowers - few are species-specific, which many users seem to think they are. So a few years of weedkillers, plus free-ranging sheep that graze off everything during the growing season (and perhaps beyond) means the lovely limestone landscapes (at least the ones I walked across last summer) are practically flowerless. Tom, being a local, will corroborate my description of what's happening on land in the Dales. I might write more on this subject later.

But, back to Tom. He is very cross. After 20 years of using taxpayer's money to maintain and recover nature on his farm he is now told that when his scheme ends next February he will have a year to wait before his land will be entered into a new one. Tom is a dedicated nature farmer, but he cannot afford to carry on without the grants unless he intensifies his farming, and this will be to the detriment of the limestone flowers of his pastures and meadows. Almost his entire farm income after costs is from the Stewardship grants (about £15,000 per year). Tom is not the only farmer or landowner in this position - there are thought to be a large number of others in the same boat, including some national conservation charities such as the National Trust (and probably the RSPB and local wildlife trusts as well). Something similar happened when farmers' Environmentally Sensitive Area Scheme agreements finished; it is widely known that some land that had been supported as hay meadow came out of the scheme and was immediately "improved" to the detriment of the wild flowers that had begun to reappear in them.

The current palaver seems to be two fold: (1) there isn't enough money in the agri-environment scheme "pot" for everyone who needs support at the moment; having a gap between agreements will undoubtedly save the government (i.e. Defra/Natural England) a lot of money and one cynical view that this cost saving was planned for; (2) not all upland farmers with existing Higher Level Stewardship agreements can be "converted" without ease into the new Countryside Stewardship scheme as the latter cannot offer all the same options. There are also other inflexibilities which don't make sense.

So, was this situation arrived at by Cockup (or Conspiracy to save money)? Don't get me wrong - there will be plenty of Natural England advisers on the ground who are mortified by this situation because they see decades of hard graft now abandoned and likely to put High Value Nature areas (that are not legally protected) at risk. No part of Tom's farm is a Site of Special Scientific Interest (although it should be) - as soon as his agreement ends he could talk to the nearest dairy farm and get them to spread slurry all over his beautiful meadows, or just go buy some bags of NPK and tip them across his land. After all that's what's happened to most other flower-rich grasslands in England except for ones on inaccessible slopes; even though farmers are meant to apply for permission to agriculturally 'improve' such areas the regulations covering improvement of uncultivated land are useless and unenforceable. I know, I've tried to use them.

Tom's existing agri-environment agreement ends next February. Let's hope the powers that be sort out something very very soon to ensure that farmers like him continue to be rewarded for doing the right thing by nature.

Thursday, 27 February 2014

Warm work - home insulation

The work described here is part of package of measures being embarked upon, to reduce heat loss from a 1960's semi-detached house in Frome, Somerset. The work has been jointly designed by myself and Paul Buckingham - we are both graduates of the Centre for Alternative Technology Architecture course Advanced Environmental and Energy Studies (PG Dip/MSc).

Top left shows roof plate of my 1960s semi-detached house - uninsulated and with a large area of cold wall inside above all the top floor windows. This is where condensation occurs and mould grows - a problem with all the 1960s houses built to this design.(See my post Save before Generating for more on this.) Windows are below the soffit boards at the base of the roof. Battens attached to the outer blocks support the soffits. The top row of outer blocks is has been used to close up the 50mm cavity.

The picture to the right shows the party wall with an uninsulated cavity that is exposed to the cold where it joins the roof - a major problem. To address it will require pumping insulation in via the internal wall or taking all the roof tiles off to expose and fill it that way. We are exploring the possibility of insulating from inside but have yet to find a company willing to do it. They seem to be few and far between.It is mad that if cavity wall insulation is done (often under a government grant scheme - now it is free to anyone) the party wall is not. As a consequence, this type of house will have only one brick skin between the internal part of the property and the cold winter air.

100mm polystyrene insulation has been used - cut in steps up to and including the first 500mm into the loft space. Loft insulation has then been overlapped. An air gap has been left to allow for air to circulate in the roof (inflow via vents in the soffits). Ventilation - moving air - in the roof is vital to prevent condensation occurring in the loft. A section of roof felt had to be replaced with a suitable membrane, although we were able to reuse the battens for fixing the tiles.
Vermiculite was used to fill in gaps between the steps of insulation. The insulation sytem used is Knauf-Marmorit - 100mm polystyrene stuck down with a lime-based mortar (also used to insulate the rear exterior of the house). The down side of this system is the huge quantity of polystyrene waste, and the impossibility of controlling where all the bits go. Despite our best efforts, there are bits of polystyrene all over the place in the garden. With hindsight I would in future prefer to use a wood-fibre product - much more sustainable and environmentally friendly (although nowhere near as good an insulator).

Cavity wall insulation
The house was cavity-wall insulated in 2008, but we know that the insulation did not reach many areas, including under windows and beside doors. Thermal imaging of other properties has shown that insulating cavity walls, especially those with 50mm cavities, is not an exact science. However, leaving bits of uninsulated walls means small areas of cold surface where condensation will readily occur. I have begun the process of seeking restorative work on my property by the company responsible for the insulation - there is a 25-year guarantee.However, they don't seem to be able to find contractors to do the work, as yet.

Sunday, 2 February 2014

Flooding and farming: level heads are needed

Feelings are running high in Somerset as parts of the Levels continue to be inundated with deep floodwater, causing untold misery to those who live and farm there. Locals are convinced that some river-dredging would have substantially reduced the length of time the land there has been underwater and offer evidence from the Environment Agency demonstrating this. The EA did start some dredging last year at 'pinch points'. I suspect the work was delayed owing to the incredibly wet summer - a lot of land-related contract work just didn't get done in 2012 - a large area of the Levels was flooded at the time.

There's a lot to consider about how the Levels should be managed, and the debate needs to cover all bases, not just be confined to dredging. However, to date there hasn't been a rounded debate - and this is badly needed. It is vital to look at reducing the quantity of silt being eroded off farmland into the rivers - after all it is a first principle in addressing pollution control to deal with SOURCE before PATHWAY and finally RECEPTOR. Catchment Sensitive Farming initiatives aim to help farmers with this, but the initiative is inadequately funded (our R Frome initaitive is to be put into ''passive" status owing to inadequate funding) with CSF "struggling" to deliver.

In all the years I have been working in land management, many daft things have been done to floodplains and high up on the list is the conversion of permanent pasture to temporary grassland or, worse still, arable land in areas which should NEVER have been ploughed. One of the daftest examples was the construction of an embankment within part of the Nene Washes (Cambs) within which the land was pumped and carrots grown (the water being pumped on to adjacent land, making that wetter!) The Washes were designed to TAKE AND HOLD FLOODWATER and should never have been used to grow arable crops. This daftness was eventually put into reverse, but Tory MP Richard Body was one of many commentators who raised the profile about this type of mad subsidy-driven farming in his books Agriculture: The Triumph and the Shame and Farming in the Clouds. Subsidy-driven deep drainage for farming intensification in the Somerset Levels was also a cause celebre in the 1980s - and why the Environmentally Sensitive Areas Scheme was introduced here (following Andrew Lee's and other's campaigns about wetland destruction in the Halvergate Marshes and other areas). It is a tragedy that the ESA scheme is no more and a big concern that farmers could now drop out of the agri-environment programme, with the risk that land could be, once more, cultivated and intensified here.

It is urgent that questions should be asked about what types of land use are appropriate to the Levels. Resilient pastures are floristically diverse, with many grass and herb species that can tolerate prolonged flooding, unlike re-seeded rye-grass leys or arable land. Listening to one farmer who had just re-seeded after last winter reinforces the need to look at just what is grown on the levels and how farming can become more resilient there. Another farmer was on the radio saying he had lost a winter wheat crop. So why is winter wheat being grown on land liable to flooding - it doesn't make sense unless you are willing to take a big gamble (and lose the crop)? Arable land on the Levels also offers a potential and much greater source of silt, than does permanent pasture, that will end up in the rivers (and thus increase the frequency for river-dredging). All these considerations must be part of the big debate about future management of the Levels. Finally, any funding from the public sector must be strongly justified. We keep being reminded we are in an age of austerity and Somerset is facing a situation where cuts in public services are deep and damaging. As a taxpayer I want to see my taxes used to protect people and property where this makes sense, but not to justify the continuation of inappropriate land use practices that are going to make matters worse. 

You can see some of my other contributions to the debate here and here.

Tuesday, 28 January 2014

Save before generating

Uninsulated gable end wall, 1960s flats
at Austin Close, Frome, Somerset
It is good news that local communities will be supported to develop renewable energy generation schemes if the profits are to be used effectively to reduce energy demand. There are, however, major problems with most of our housing stock that are not being acknowledged by the construction industry, the green deal tick boxes or government, such as incomplete and badly installed insulation, including cavity wall insulation. There is also a substantial pre 1970s housing stock constructed of dense concrete blocks that the Government does not include in its 'hard to heat' homes categories (which it seems to think is confined to older solid walled properties). Much of this concrete-block housing was built as council housing and a lot of it is still occupied by social housing tenants on low incomes. There is usually an uninsulated concrete slab floor (= penetrating cold),  the walls don't "breathe", the cavities are narrow and difficult to fill, and once sealed in with double glazing these properties suffer badly from condensation and mould. Residents get blamed for the latter, when it is the construction that is the issue. A response (recently seen in one property) is to make a hole in the wall for ventilation - which means a constant blast of cold air and higher heating bills. Very few people, including those in charge of managing social housing properties, have a good understanding of what measures are needed to reduce heating bills and take people out of fuel poverty in this type of property. It isn't  solar panels that are needed, but training schemes and skilled people who will design and oversee projects to make houses warmer while using less energy.
Uninsulated sections of a property that have received
cavity wall insulation (blue). Condensation occurs
in these areas (see below), with consequent rapid growth
of mould - a serious environmental health problem.
This situation is experienced in many houses, especially
those built of impermeable dense concrete blocks, but it is also
being found in more recently-built (e.g. 1980s) houses.

My colleague Paul Buckingham and I, and many other contributors to Green Building Magazine, know that there are few builders who are competent to do the necessary work to an appropriate standard, and that green deal assessments are too superficial, just like the ridiculous Energy Performance Certificates. The one done for my house was completed by someone who didn't even visit it and who failed to record cavity wall insulation and a condensing boiler had been installed. This meant I had to complain to the issuing company, which subsequently had to redo the assessment. Similarly, I am now claiming under my Cavity Wall Insulation guarantee - as we have found installation has been incomplete - with large unfilled gaps found during our own survey of the property.

Investment into making homes warmer is far more of a priority than generating energy, and I am not convinced that profits from community renewables will be sufficient to unlock enough cash to address the mountains that have to be climbed to achieve energy-efficient housing in Britain. Another option could have been to use Quantitative Easing cash for this purpose, something my colleague Ken Neal has been pushing for. By this means money would be circulated within the local economy with multiplier effects (rather than being given to banks and effecting further increases in house prices).
Mould growing where condensation is occurring on the 'cold' bridge
which is the wall area above the soffits and under the roofline. This is a tenanted house privately owned. In this case the landlord is taking the problem seriously and engaging Paul and a local builder to do remedial work. This will involve taking two rows of tiles off the roof, removing the cavity wall closer, filling the cavity with vermiculite and placing insulation above the soffit on the outside wall. Loft insulation will also be increased and will link up with the new insulation, to effectively remove the existing cold bridge. Active mechanical ventilation will also be installed in the kitchen and bathroom to reduce the quantity of water vapour in the house. In an ideal situation the use of a heat recovery ventilation system would be better, such as the Lo Carbon Tempra kit that I have installed in my own kitchen. This will all help. However, the ideal would be a complete and comprehensive whole house audit and eco refurb but most landlords and house owners are not prepared for either the cost or the upheaval involved.

Hold back the floods

Waterlogged maize field near Frome, January 2014.The area in the foreground is also contaminated by leachate originating from a manure pile (not slurry as previously stated),  so it isn't just water and soil washing off the land into watercourses. Two springs rise in this field which is located on a heavy clay soil liable to waterlogging. Maize-growing is not an appropriate way to farm this land in an environmentally sustainable way.

Britain is once again under deluge. Prolonged bouts of heavy rain over the past couple of months mean the ground is waterlogged and low-lying land flooded.  Across much of the country, more water is reaches the floodplain more quickly because of land drainage in the catchment to enable more intensive farming. This has effectively removed the capacity of semi-natural vegetation (much of which has been removed or significantly reduced), such as associated with deep-rooted broad leaved herbs in pastures, wetlands, hedgerows and trees, to hold water back. Along with these land use changes, modern farming continues to cause vast quantities of soil erosion from fields and into watercourses. Even now, during heavy rain, slurry from dairy farms is also washing off fields – and this is another source of nutrient-rich silt entering rivers. This situation means many West Country rivers are now in a dire state and are failing to meet quality objectives for nitrogen, phosphate and fish. Watercourse maintenance is a vital tool in the box for reducing flood risk but it is overly simplistic, as many have suggested, to claim that all the problems being experienced now in the Somerset Levels and other flood-prone areas are due to a lack of river dredging. Moreover, in the past, over-deepening and over-widening rivers to facilitate drainage off low grade farmland and thus intensify farming practices have exacerbated flooding downstream. Some blame therefore lies with the former Internal Drainage Boards, the farming industry, National Rivers Authority (and predecessors) for colluding to create this situation that cost taxpayers dear, for the sole purpose of enabling landowners to reap agricultural subsidies for creating arable land, reseeding pastures and destroying flower rich meadows and other semi-natural vegetation – often in or adjacent to floodplains. The Somerset Levels is an area where this happened big time and tensions here in the 1980s and 90s led to farmers burning the effigy of a local Nature Conservancy Council official and then to the introduction of the Environmentally Sensitive Areas scheme. But this was the past and everyone needs to look at the now. Today, politicians, planners, the farming industry and all those involved in flood-risk planning, need to take a breath and work together to develop holistic, landscape-based measures that will overall improve the resilience of areas prone to flooding and treat a major part of the problem - runoff and silt from farmland at source. Such plans must also sit within a longer term adaptation strategy that will enable communities to adapt to climate change – including higher winter rainfall and sea level rise. 

The Somerset Levels is low-lying, most of it only just above sea level (20% is below mean high tide), necessitating pump drainage at times of high rain and high tides. The rivers also outfall into the Bristol Channel, which has the second greatest tidal range in the world. No amount of dredging will move water off from the area when it is underwater and when tides are high. Owen Paterson, having visited the Levels yesterday, has come in for a lot of flack from locals who are baying for the blood of the Environment Agency (apparently it is all the EA's fault the water hasn't disappeared) and want the rivers dredged. Paterson is correct in seeking to get organisations together to come up with a holistic plan (albeit on an unrealistic time scale). Work to alleviate flooding in all areas must get away from the old dredge, drain and pump approach and look to a much rounded set of long term measures. It is, however, a tragedy that the shambolic Common Agricultural Policy will continue to give money to farmers with hardly any strings attached. That is the money that could have been used to achieve the necessary land use change.

The Wildlife Trusts ( and Chartered Institute for Water and Environmental Management (CIWEM) issued press statements in January, calling for the authorities and agencies responsible for managing flood and coastal erosion risks to prioritise natural and sustainable solutions in rural and urban areas. A spokesman from the Environment Agency said that there needed to be a pond in every field in areas where flood prevention is needed. Yours truly piled into the debate via Farmers Guardian’s 10 January leader article (see while George Monbiot’s treatise (“Drowning in money, Guardian, 13 January) had received over 800 comments within a few days of it being published.

Progress on implementing natural solutions has been painfully slow, despite “upstream” measures having been a key recommendation of the Pitt Review of flooding, published in 2007. There have been a few pilot projects, but funding and difficulties of landowner/farmer engagement continue to be major stumbling blocks, while further agricultural intensification in recent years in some areas has led to more runoff and silt entering rivers. Mark Fisher, commenting on George M’s feature, lamented experience from the Ripon Multi-objective Project, saying that, “Despite ... positive findings ... the landowners proved unwilling to submit an application for planting floodplain woodland at any of the identified sites and a decision was taken to close the project (after 15 months).” He said that a primary reason for their recalcitrance was “the lack of sufficient payments/incentive to compensate for the perceived reduction in capital value of the land and loss of agricultural income, as well as for the increased risks associated with land use change”. Monbiot rightly turns the table away on the whingers who say that too little is spent on flood defences, highlighting the excessive spending on policies (especially the CAP) that make flooding worse. It all comes back to money. There is a lot of it around, but most of it (88%) will be used to support farmers' incomes, which will in turn keep agricultural land prices high. Delivering the necessary land use changes to deliver 'ecosystem services' will be unable to compete on price.