Storm Desmond, climate change, land use and what it means for Dartmoor

My heart goes out to all the people and communities in Cumbria and southern Scotland who have been impacted by the dreadful flooding. In addition the National Trust is a major landowner in the Lake District (we own around 25%) and I personally know many of the Rangers and General Managers up there. I can only imagine how stressful everything must be and how disheartening it will be to see so many places and projects damaged by the flood waters.

Fell Foot floods
The National Trust’s property at Fell Foot on Lake Windermere on Sunday – I was at a meeting in this building 18 months ago (photo from You can find out more here about the flooding in the Lake District and how it has affected the NT.

Much has been written already about Storm Desmond and no doubt a great deal more is to come. I have heard a number of politicians understandably saying that we must never let this happen again. I fear though that those words will be easier to say than achieve.

The questions therefore that need to be answered are why did it happen and what can we do to better protect places and people?

Why did it happen?
I guess the obvious needs to be stated – there was a huge storm….. in my blog yesterday I set out a few of the startling statistics provided by the Met Office and the Environmental Agency. I also quoted the following ‘279mm rain fell in 1 day in 1955. This UK record lasted for 54 years, till 316mm fell in 2009. Just 6 years later 341mm falls.’ Cumbria has now been hit by huge storms in 2006, 2009 and now in 2015. Each of those events was a 1 in a 100 + flood event – three such events in less than a decade. That is just Cumbria – we mustn’t forget the Somerset Levels events in 2013-14 and those all along the Thames in the same year, then there was Gloucester, York, Boscastle etc etc.

To quote the Guardian “The Met Office has warned that ‘all the evidence’ suggests climate change played a role in the floods which have devastated thousands of homes following Storm Desmond. The Met Office’s chief scientist Dame Julia Slingo said the extreme weather conditions were ‘extraordinary’. She told BBC Radio 4’s World At One: ‘Is it to do with climate change? There can’t yet be a definitive answer but we know that all the evidence from fundamental physics and what we understand about our weather patterns, that there is potentially a role.’”

Yesterday in Parliament Liz Truss, the Environmental Secretary said “The government’s view is that these floods are consistent with what we know about climate change. The government’s flood defence plans contain assumptions about climate change. But that modelling will have to be reviewed in the light of the current floods.”

Again according to the Guardian a spokesperson for the Environment Agency said “Climate change is happening now and we must build resilience and adapt to the changes that are unavoidable. Climate change adaptation has been going on for some time: sea level rise has been factored into coastal decisions since 1998.”

Lord Deben, (the former Conservation Environment Minister John Gummer), and now Chair of the Committee on Climate Change said on Twitter “People with real concern for flood victims should be constantly reminded of the consequences of climate change.”

This is what the Hadley Centre for Climate Prediction and Research (part of the Met Office) have modelled regarding climate change predictions in the UK.

Forecast changeable projections
Climate change’s fingerprints are all over this

Ironic perhaps that Storm Desmond should occur whilst the International Climate Change Talks in Paris (COP21) are in full flow. Let us hope that these negotiations are successful and effective. We already have seen 1 degree of global warming since the Industrial Revolution – all the science says that we must keep future changes below 2 degrees (i.e. 1 degree more than where we are now).

What can we do to better protect places and people?
The National Trust has set out its concerns along with some of the adaptation solutions we are trialling in its recent document Forecast ChangeableClick here to download the report. For example there is a short summary of the work that has been carried out on the Holnicote Estate on Exmoor – which aims to demonstrate that by working at a catchment scale and changing some land management practices, a natural approach to flood management can be achieved while producing wider environmental and community benefits. See here, here and here for more details of the project.

WWF has also produced a report Slowing the Flow – a natural solution to flooding problems – download it here.

Professor Steve Ormerod (who is also the Chair of RSPB) and Edward Maltby have produced a useful review of the benefits of rivers and wetlands in managing floods and other environmental services.  You can download the chapter here.

So here are two projects and a review document which advocate ‘upstream’ management to try and reduce / eliminate flooding. So why have I picked on these and not talked about building flood defences and dredging rivers?

There is increasing concern in many circles now that the way that we are managing our  catchments and rivers is actually aggravating the problems we face from rain storms. Many catchments are now either denuded of vegetation (are in arable cultivation), have compacted soils (either from stock or agricultural machinery) or have short uniform vegetation (e.g. the uplands of much of Britain). These three factors ensure that any storm water which hits them travels very quickly into water courses (i.e. they are not absorbed by the soil) and then into rivers which have been straightened, deepened and dredged. The water then travels very quickly until it reaches an obstacle such as a bridge or a town – at which point the banks breach and flood defences are overtopped and flooding such as we have just witnessed in Carlisle occurs.

Projects such as the Holnicote one on Exmoor aims to achieve the opposite – that is hold and absorb as much of the storm water in the upper catchment for as long as possible.

Interestingly some habitat types are much better at absorbing water than others, for example maize fields (especially those on slopes) are terrible at it and I have written about this before – see here and here. Other habitats such as woodland on the other hand are very good at it. Research carried out in Upland Wales found that areas planted up with trees were 67 times better at absorbing water when compared to grazed pastures. See here and here.

Encouraging therefore to report that during the Commons debate on the flooding in northern Britain and Southern Scotland earlier in the week that Anne-Marie Trevelyan, a Conservative MP who represents Berwick-upon-Tweed, said that more trees should be planted on high land to reduce the risk of flooding. Liz Truss, the Environment Secretary responded by saying that this is an issue the government is considering.

Depressing though to hear Meurig Raymond, President of the National Farmers Union on the Today programme yesterday, basically saying that more money was need to dredge rivers, channel maintenance and hard infrastructure. He was completely unprepared to countenance upstream management solutions. He seemed to be arguing that farming was so important in the uplands that it couldn’t be altered to incorporate upstream management considerations. You can listen to the interview with Meurig Raymond and George Monbiot here and then draw your own conclusions.

This debate has got a long way to run and to be honest it is not an ‘either / or’ situation, however the status quo simply won’t work and has been shown not to work.

What does all this mean for Dartmoor?
This debate isn’t of course just about the Lake District – this could have happened on Dartmoor. At some point in the future a big storm will hit the West Country – maybe the rainfall won’t be as huge as in the Lake District because the Tors aren’t as high as the mountains but who knows.

Land use on Dartmoor is pretty much identical to the Lakes and the woodlands that exist are largely restricted to the river valleys. The debate therefore about upstream solutions to flooding are very relevant to Dartmoor too. My blog about changes in the vegetation in the Upper Plym (see here) shows that in recent years the moor has become less resilient and less able to hold back the water. There has been some upstream work on Dartmoor via the Dartmoor Mires Project but at this stage it has only covered a tiny area of the moor, was considered controversial by some, is currently being reviewed and any future works are not funded. This type of project needs to shoot up the agenda on Dartmoor.

We shouldn’t also forget that there are a lot of towns around the fringes of the moor located next to moorland rivers. As in the Lake District the first major pinch point for rivers in spate are these towns.

Lots to thinks about and lots to do.



17 thoughts on “Storm Desmond, climate change, land use and what it means for Dartmoor

  1. Super blog Adrian. And so sad to hear NFU rep stuck in the past of subsidy-driven farming. Its time for land management to move into the 21st century.

  2. Good blog Adrian, clear and well balanced. Perhaps Ministers’ reluctance to contemplate long-term land management policies (like upland tree planting) and their glacial response to tackling climate change, is rooted in their desire to demonstrate short-term results (like building walls) that coincide with their own 4-5 year employment cycle.

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  4. Adrian,
    you may be interested in work we are doing in Gloucestershire in the Stroud Valleys. We have been working with some of your colleagues on the NT Ebworth Estate to implement natural Flood Management measures. We’re also working with private landowners and other organisations around the valleys to implement a wide range of NFM measures.

    You can find out more at:
    We have produced a film, in which the NT plays a part, to describe why we are undertaking the work and how.

    I’m managing one of the only local authority Natural Flood Management schemes in the country, but working largely within a farmed landscape. No peaty uplands here, but plenty of permanent pasture, arable and woodland.


  5. What has happened in floodplains is also very relevant. I remember a visit to the Eden Valley not that long ago. Pretty well all the grassland was intensive silage or heavily grazed by sheep, with one feeble attempt to fence sheep out of a stream running into the river (the sheep were inside the fence). There were no (in that particular area) rushy soggy fields. This was a landscape that has absolubtely no resilience in the face of heavy downpours and has of course lost most of its biodiversity. Here in the Upper Frome (Somerset) catchment there is a place called ‘Cloford Common’ that has been incrementallly improved within the recent past (very recent, i.e. within the past 5-8 years). Permanent grassland all gone, deep drained, silage/slurry fields. All this improvement, some of which is relatively recent (especially cultivation of formerly permanent grassland) further decreases the capacity of the landscape to hold back water. Our river is thought now, in the upper catchment, to hold 75% less volume than 30 years ago – much of this probably due to floodplain grassland improvements as well as past river deepening and probably abstraction for dairy and pig farms. But, of course if it rains, then the water just speeds off the land, the river goes into spate and then puts Frome at risk of flooding. It is a mad world, and it is clear to me that intensive farming and bad land management associated with farming (such as heavily sheep grazed upland pastures) are a major part of the problem. However much we bleat on about this the farming industry and politicians get on the defensive and refuse to countenance the action that is really necessary. Part of the issue is that some of the people managing land have absolubtely no interest in the role that should be central to their jobs as farmers, i.e. sustainable land management. There are others who are also just plain ignorant (like the slurry spreading contractors I met who didn’t even know what the cross compliance rules were on that). So long as agriculture is about global commodity markets and farmers are encourage to intensify so that China can be fed I see no end to it all. (And here is another example of a very very rich man whose farm was in HLS and he got a big grant and annual payments for 10 years to create a fantastic flower-rich grassland on arable land, which was then ploughed up at the end of the 10 years in case it got caught up in the regs relating to permanent grassland.) He didn’t need the money, but basically didn’t care – happy to grab cash from the taxpayer but not deliver in the long term even though he could afford it. How many examples are there like that? My faith in humans is probably at an all time low! (Hopefully I will be cheered up when I go to the Oxford Real Farming Conference in January!)

    • Hi Sue – good to hear from you again after so long. You are so right in what you say – all I would add is that is exactly what we were dealing with in Northamptonshire in the 1980s and 1990s. On a positive note at least land use is now at least on the agenda A

  6. Thank-you Adrian. Great to hear that (unike Raymond and other backward-thinking people unfortunately in key positions of influence to our cost) some are re-opening minds to only recently forgotten but much-needed wisdom.

    Chris’s excellent Vimeo film from eco-aware Stroud shows techniques beautifully adapted to English environment, which have been used in development practice for a good few decades (eg FAO “Minimising Water Stress and Improving Water Resources” online). For farmers in arid areas even something as simple as low contour bunding can make a life and death difference to water infiltration, soil moisture and fertility, as well as flooding. In India, for example, people have been conserving and managing water like this for millennia. In permaculture we use the swale amongst other things, while in the US contour ploughing is much better known than here, I believe.

    The recent DIF Disruptive Innovation Festival show-cased some agricultural management ideas that Mr Raymond & Co would do well to start learning about, such as Leontino Balbo’s very successful re-imagining of sugar cane cultivation in Brazil.

    Many public perceptions and prejudices also need to start shifting asap. Apparently in the Lakes many are obsessed with keeping the modern denuded appearance of the hills, daffodils etc, seeming completely oblivious to the fact that it is these same bare slopes that are speeding the water down into their houses.

  7. Very useful and informative update, thank you. Our River Mole in Surrey has behaved badly in recent years and the flood management scheme is a patchwork of EA and Gatwick funded hard engineering with some modest sustainable designs. Sadly there is so much pressure to build houses around here that a large estate was built on the flood plain immediately after the most recent £12 million scheme was finished! The Gatwick Stream attenuation scheme was designed to increase flood resilience to the airport terminals but the building of the housing estate illustrates the problem of managing lowland basins holistically when there are so many land use demands. Whilst I don’t agree with the NFU guy (how depressing!) I can imagine that some Cumbrian farmers would have convincing arguments in support of their land management. Here’s some posts I wrote on my local catchment that show how the River Mole lowland basin is being managed:

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