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.