Maize grown for AD plants increase by 55% in a year

Figures just release by Defra (see here) show that the area of land in England used to grow maize for use in Anaerobic Digestion plants to produce electricity rose to 52,280 ha – a 55% increase on 2105.

29% of all maize grown in England now is for AD plants. This accounts for 1% of all arable land in England.


As I, and many others, have repeatedly said maize can be implicated with increased flood risk (see here and  here for my collection of blogs on the topic).  Maize is harvested late in the year and the heavily compacted soils are left bare all winter. During periods of high rainfall these soils do not absorb the water to any great extent – instead the water rushes off the fields, particularly when they are on slopes and quickly overwhelms stream and river systems. When this happens extensive soil erosion can also occur.

Here is an example of the phenomenon from Herefordshire  last month following Storm Angus as reported by the Environment Agency

Prior to its abolition earlier this summer, following Theresa May’s appointment as Prime Minister, the Department for Energy and Climate Change had issued a consultation paper which included two options to reduce the incentives for farmers to grow maize for AD – see here.

I haven’t heard the outcome of that consultation and I’m not sure which government Department is now responsible for it – Defra maybe? Does anyone else know?

The 55% increase in maize grown for AD announced today would not have been influenced by the DECC consultation as the seeds would have been already sown. It would however be helpful if an announcement is made soon as it would potentially influence sowing intentions next spring and I don’t think anyone (other than the maize farmers concerned) want to see a further increase in the area of maize grown in England with its attendant increased flood risk and heightened soil erosion potential.


Reducing flood risk from source to sea

The Environment Agency have just published a document on what has happened in Cumbria since devastating flooding caused by Storm Desmond in December 2015. It is called Reducing flood risk from source to sea: first steps towards an integrated catchment plan for Cumbria. You can download and read it here.


Actions to prevent flooding in Cumbria have divided into 5 main themes

  1. Strengthening defences
  2. Upstream thinking
  3. Maintenance
  4. Resilience
  5. Water level management boards

I’m very pleased to see ‘Upstream Thinking’ as one of the themes. Although at this stage (understandably) the detail is rather thin the document does talk about “land-management techniques such as soil aeration, bunds, leaky dams, woodland creation and river restoration to absorb water and slow the flow in locations across Cumbria” and “restoring at least 350 hectares of high priority peatland to absorb water upstream of communities, and we are creating natural flood storage areas upstream”.

This graphic gives and indication of what might be planned

I will be interested to see what reaction there is to this document from Cumbrian communities, farmers and organisations such as the National Trust (who own a great deal of the land involved).

The Green Alliance and flooding

The Green Alliance has just published a new report  – Smarter Flood Risk Management in England – investing in resilient catchments by Nicola Wheeler, Angela Francis and Anisha George. You can download it here. Here is the BBC reporting of the study – see here.

The Report suggests that 4x as much money is spent on land management that ignores flood risk compare to that which prevents it.

In addition 2x as much is spent on the aftermath of floods as is spent on flood defences.

The Green Alliance is calling for s reform of the CAP post Brexit which takes flooding into account, the establishment of a Natural Flood Management budget (in addition to the £15m that has already been pledged and the creation of Regional Catchment Boards which seems to reflect the views of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs selection committee (see here) and Dieter Helm’s views (the Chair of the Natural Capital Committee (same blog – see here).

These graphics are included in the report and detail their case.



It is an important report which highlights the policy clashes – let’s see what happens next.


Storm Angus, the Amber rain and Holnicote

Following Storm Angus last weekend a piece appeared in the Guardian which reported that the Natural Flood Management measures introduced by the National Trust on its Holnicote Estate on Exmoor had been effective at protecting over 100 houses downstream from flooding.

You can read that article here.

Nigel Hester, the Holnicote NFM Project Manager for the National Trust posted some pictures of Allerford during the storm


screen-shot-2016-11-24-at-09-38-42As Storm Angus was quickly followed by the Amber rain event I was keen to find out what happened after Angus

screen-shot-2016-11-24-at-09-30-01The first peak is Angus and the second is the Amber rain event – I wanted to check with Nigel that the villages and homes had survived flood free both of the events. I asked him “looking at your picture of the Packhouse Inn – does that mean that eventually the river broke its bank and flooded the village?”

screen-shot-2016-11-24-at-09-31-39This is his reply – no flooding.

This is very good news and a very impressive outcome considering there were two large flood events in succession. When the Amber rain arrived there was still a lot of water in the system from Angus.

This is a major story and one that should be of interest to local communities and politicians everywhere.

It appears to me that a well designed and correctly located natural flood management scheme can make a real difference on the ground. Now all that is needed is some modest funding and some political will.



No trains to and from Exeter for 48 hours

Storm Angus and yesterday’s ‘Amber’ rain have taken their toll, flooding is widespread and disruption is extensive.

This graphic from the website FloodAlerts from yesterday afternoon sums up the problems in Devon and Somerset

screen-shot-2016-11-22-at-07-54-24This is the gauging station data from the Exe in Exwick where I live – the first peak (20/11) shows the water levels caused by Storm Angus, the second peak (yesterday) is as a result of the ‘amber’ rain – note this is a new record high.

screen-shot-2016-11-22-at-08-21-43As a result this has just been issued by the BBC – no trains in and out of Exeter for 48 hours – we’ve been here before ……. (see here)

We have undoubtedly had a lot of rain but many of us think the problems have been exacerbated by certain land management practices – I have written extensively about this in the past with particular reference to maize cultivation (see here for all my writing on that topic) and today my Twitter feed is full of other people saying pretty much the same thing.

screen-shot-2016-11-22-at-08-39-55Here is a tweet from an Environment Agency Manager in Herefordshire – look familiar?

screen-shot-2016-11-22-at-08-39-32And here is the Chief Executive of the West Country River’s Trust making the same point by commenting on flood management expert Phil Brewin’s tweet and photos from Somerset

Understanding management practices on land are essential in the fight against flooding and maize in inappropriate places really makes things worse. Many of us have also been arguing  for ‘natural flood management’ solutions such as those implemented at Holnicote (see here)

screen-shot-2016-11-22-at-09-05-12Here is a tweet (yesterday evening at 5pm) from Nigel Hester of the National Trust who project managed the Holnicote Natural Flood Management Project

Ironically yesterday the Guardian published a piece which featured Holnicote and stated that the Government is not funding any Natural Flood Management Schemes at present – see here.

Lets hope some of these things change soon.

Future Flood Prevention

Following the winter flooding in 2015/16 characterised by Storms Desmond, Eva and Frank, the Parliamentary Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (EFRA) Select Committee launched an Inquiry into flooding. Their report ‘Future Flood Prevention’ was published last week – you can download it here.

The report contains a number of recommendations to Government. Whilst Select Committees are advisory and Government are under no obligation to implement the recommendations reports such as this are considered influential in the debate. The EFRA report follows on the back of the Government’s own National Flood Resilience Review (see here) which specifically covered protecting strategic assets such as power stations etc during flood episodes.

Of particular interest to me are the sections in the report that relate to catchment wide measures to prevent flooding and natural flood management measures. I have written extensively about this topic – follow this link and you will see the blogs I have produced.

The report contains this graphic produced by Dr Paul Quinn which indicates a range of measures that can and should be taken at a catchment level.

There is more research to be conducted on this topic but a number of trial projects are mentioned in the report favourably e.g. Holnicote in Somerset, Pickering’s ‘Slow the Flow’ and the Moors for the Future work in the Peak District and the Pennines.

The two specific recommendations from the Report are:-

  •  Defra should commission by July 2017 a large-catchment trial of the effectiveness of natural flood risk management approaches such as installation of leaky dams, tree planting and improved soil management, alongside other measures;
  • Farmland should be used in some places to store flood water: the National Farmers’ Union and Defra must develop storage approaches with low impact on farm productivity and appropriate incentives to recompense farmers

It wasn’t that long ago that natural flood management measures and the need to work on a catchment scale were simply the mantra of a few environmental organisations and academics – it is now seen as a mainstream solution.

The second point regarding the use of farmland to store flood water is also significant. The NFU have long opposed such a move and indeed ‘flood defence’ measures from  the 1970s to very recently have been designed to protect farmland from flooding rather than allowing flood plains to flood. As the recommendation suggests there is still some way to go but there is a clear marker that in some places this needs to happen – better to allow flood water onto farmed flood plains than allow it to rush into people’s homes downstream of the protected farmland.

The Report has also tasked the Environment Agency and the Met Office with improving flood risk communication i.e. ‘the 1 in a 100 year flood’ message is confusing to the public and is becoming meaningless in a world where the climate is changing and extreme storm events are increasing.

EFRA also call for various measures to be taken around the planning system to improve resilience to flood. For example developers who flout planning requirements should be made liable if flooding subsequently occurs.

The final set of recommendations in the Report centre around ‘a new model for managing flood risk’. It says

“Our model gives a strong focus to joined up, efficient action to improve flood protection by:

Establishing a new National Floods Commissioner for England, to be accountable for delivery of strategic, long-term flood risk reduction outcomes agreed with Government. Delivery would be via:

New Regional Flood and Coastal Boards to coordinate regional delivery of national plans, in partnership with local stakeholders. These Boards would take on current Lead Local Flood Authority and Regional Flood and Coastal Committee roles;

A new English Rivers and Coastal Authority, taking on current Environment Agency roles to focus on efficient delivery of national flood risk management plans.”

These ideas are not very different from those proposed by Dieter Helm, the Chair of the Natural Capital Committee – see here.

I’m not really sure what I make of these recommendations, on one hand it takes us back to something akin to the old National Rivers Authority which was considered effective and successful, on the other hand though in a world of Brexit and all the upheaval that will ensue I’m not sure that DEFRA will have the capacity and the brainpower available to re-organise the Environment Agency. (DEFRA will be extremely busy working out what follows the Common Agricultural Policy and gaining access to the Single Market for farmers).

The CLA aren’t very impressed with these recommendations either calling them a ‘backward step’ – see here.

Apart from EA re-organisation proposals the report has been well received by a wide variety of organisations interested in reducing flood risk.

Perhaps the most odd press release on the EFRA report comes from the Countryside Alliance which suggests that the report ‘recognised that there is no proven link between grouse shooting and flooding’ – see here. It is an odd statement as nowhere in the report is there a mention of grouse shooting.


New Markets for Land and Nature

Prior to our vote to leave the European Union in June this year it was nigh on impossible to find an environmentalist who supported Brexit and after the vote had occurred there was a widespread gloom and fear about what the future held for the environment. However once Theresa May had made it clear that ‘Brexit means Brexit’ the mood rapidly changed and all the major environmental NGOs and others began to explore the opportunities that existed in re-designing the subsidy system after we left the Common Agricultural Policy. For example in August the National Trust issued a six point plan which set out what it thought a re-designed new scheme should include – see here. Dame Helen Ghosh, the Trust’s Director General for example said “Public money must only pay for public goods. Currently, most of a £600m pot from the EU (out of the £3.1bn CAP funding) benefits wildlife and the environment. The majority of the remainder is allocated based on the size of farm. There will need to be a transition to the new world but this basic income support payment should be removed.

I have also written recently about the Uplands Alliance meeting in London where options for the future were discussed – see here.

Yesterday another approach and contribution was launched, again involving the National Trust but this time in partnership with the Green Alliance ‘New Markets for Land and Nature. How Natural Infrastructure Schemes could pay for a better environment‘. You can download the report here.

For the past few years the National Trust have been developing their Land and Nature programme, an attempt to define and expand the Trust’s work in saving, creating and enjoying nature. One of the work streams was exploring new economic models for agriculture. This work carried out by the Green Alliance for the National Trust is the first major contribution to that debate.


The Executive Summary states “Agriculture is under pressure to increase production, reduce its environmental impact and eliminate its dependence on public subsidy. Many farming businesses are operating at the limit of their profitability, often to the detriment of soil health, water quality and biodiversity. Farmers are in a unique position to restore and protect the natural environment, but there is no commercial basis for the provision of natural services from farmland. This report sets out a mechanism for establishing natural markets to bring new income streams into farming, supporting a fundamentally different approach to land use.

The report uses an ecosystem service approach and focuses on a market for ‘slow clean water’. They argue that by creating such a market water companies would not need to spend so much on pollution reduction and water treatment measures and bodies such as the Environment Agency,  local authorities and insurance companies would not need to spend so much on flood protection schemes along with the costs of clearing up after such events had occurred.

This approach builds on DEFRA’s ecosystem payment model by increasing revenue with ‘a market for avoided costs’. The report suggests that the cost of floods and treatment for water pollution to be £2,373 million a year, equivalent to £24 million a year for each of the one hundred water catchments in England.

This diagram gives an overview of how Natural Infrastructure Schemes (NIS) and NIS Plus might work – driven by farmers and land managers and funded by industry / public authorities who save money from the avoided costs of pollution and flooding which then benefits a variety of different customers.

screen-shot-2016-09-29-at-11-02-13This graphic sets out how such an approach would benefit farmers and land managers

It is a very interesting contribution to the debate on post Brexit agriculture, the State of Nature, flooding and pollution. It offers a mechanism whereby farmers, especially those in the uplands can secure their financial futures by providing additional ‘public goods’ along with an albeit reduced farming output. It offers the opportunity of giving upland farmers a large, important and publicly valued societal role at a time when their own self esteem has been reduced by an otherwise unprofitable agricultural regime.

Flooding: co-operation across Government – a missed opportunity?

The Houses of Commons Environmental Audit Committee has published its report on Flooding: co-operation across Government. You can download it here. Here is the reporting of this story by the BBC.

I have to admit that I am rather disappointed with the report. I don’t disagree with what it contains, it is what it omits that is disappointing.

Screen Shot 2016-06-09 at 10.05.13
This is how the NFU responded to the report this morning and this reflects the sentiment of the publication

I had higher hopes …. Readers may remember that the Committee called George Monbiot to gives evidence – I blogged on that at the time see here. I said the following about George’s evidence.

“He covered a lot of ground – natural flood plain management, catchment level action, slowing the flow, re-wilding, dam building, beavers, maize cultivation, land use in the uplands etc etc.

He spent quite a bit of time talking about the Basic Payment Scheme’s ‘ineligible features’ scandal and I got the feeling the Committee were very interested in what he said.”

The report does contain a 3 page section on Natural Flood Management (pages 36-38) but this merely reflects back to the reader what the witnesses at the Enquiry actually said. Their conclusion is as follows:-

“The majority of the witnesses we heard from during this inquiry supported natural flood risk management. Some of the pilots demonstrating this approach, including in Pickering, have been successful. We look forward to seeing the results of the pilots in Cumbria at the end of this year and hope that decisions on further roll out will follow soon afterwards. The Government should make sure that funds are available to fund more pilots to continue to make the case for this approach and to protect those places like Pickering which might benefit from a cheaper natural flood management project. However, to roll this out nationally will take time and people want their homes protected today. It is only right then that current flood risk management approaches should continue to be the focus.”

I have written a lot about Natural Flood Management (at Holnicote here for example and here about Taming the Flood) but for it to work it must also include changes in land use. I have written extensively about the flooding problems that maize causes (see here) but this topic is simply not covered in the EAC’s report. The report was supposed to be about co-operation across Government but in reality has only really focussed on the work of the Environment Agency and whether the Treasury / DEFRA give them enough money.

The report hasn’t tackled DEFRA on land use when we know that many of the flooding problems in the Somerset Levels were caused by land use higher up the catchments.

I also recently tweeted about the concerns that the Highways Agency have surrounding maize cultivation in Devon and the impact this has on flooding of the road network and the apparent failure of DEFRA to use their cross compliance rules to halt bad practice and therefore reduce flooding. Co-operation across Government needs to include the Highways Agency!

Screen Shot 2016-06-09 at 10.19.46

So going back to the NFU’s tweet of the day (above), they have interpreted the EAC report as a green light to continue spending flood defence money on protecting farmland by dredging and bund maintenance rather than allowing flood plains to flood.

It is undoubtedly a complex and political topic but I am afraid the EAC have missed some of the major points. All is not lost, there are good things in the report and we still await the Report from the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee on Flooding which I hope will pick up on some of these issues.

From source to sea – Holnicote natural flood management

Yesterday I went to the National Trust’s Holnicote Estate near Porlock on Exmoor in north Somerset and was shown the widely acclaimed natural flood management project there by the Project Manager Nigel Hester.

In light of the recent floods natural flood management is widely discussed as an option for solving flooding problems in the future . Yet the Holnicote project was started in 2009. The project have been funded by DEFRA, the Environment Agency and the National Trust. It has been run as a demonstration project so it involves a great deal of modelling and monitoring to show what has worked and the effects have been.

Holnicote 7
A report has been published by the National Trust which gives a detailed account of what has been done and what the results have been – you can download the report here.

The project is a catchment wide approach to ‘slowing the flow’ of the local rivers using low key and natural interventions in an attempt to reduce / stop flooding in the local villages downstream.

Holnicote 5
Allerford – one of the local villages at risk from flooding

Perhaps the most obvious feature of the project has been the subtle re-engineering of the flood plain on the Estate which enables the river to flood onto the land – slowing the flow and greatly increasing the flood water storage capacity. The Trust has worked with its tenant farmers who have all bought into and supported the project.

Holnicote 1
A number of non intrusive bunds have been produced to create water storage areas

Holnicote 2A simple woody dam has been installed which in periods of high flow diverts the flood water from the river into the storage areas on the flood plain

Holnicote 3In the streams higher up in the catchment a number of simple woody dams have been created to provide ‘hydraulic roughness’ and slow the flow

Holnicote 4Up on the high moor ancient features such as this track have tended to funnel water and increase its flow down to the villages below – here small dams and pools have been created to slow the flow

Holnicote 6In this lovely coombe scrub is beginning to form which again increases the hydraulic roughness

As well as playing a major part in reducing flooding these small measures also provide new and interesting habitats for wildlife  – given a bit of time the coombe above might become attractive to breeding ring ouzels (which are now extinct on Exmoor) and maybe, could even be suitable habitat if a black grouse re-introduction project was ever considered. The little scrubby trees will certainly be useful to cuckoos who need such features so they scan perch and survey the landscape for food and meadow pipit nests.

It is early days for the project but to date despite some heavy rain episodes the villages down stream have not flooded since the natural flood management features were created.

This is a very brief summary of a multi-objective project – read the full report to gain a fuller picture. Really pleased to have seen it for myself – thanks Nigel for showing me around.

The National Trust should be very proud of this pioneering work – very important now to ensure that the House of Commons Select Committees working on solutions to the recent floods see and hear about this project.

This is not complicated or expensive  and the approach can be adapted and used across the country to play an important role in reducing flooding.

More on natural flood management

I found this video yesterday about natural flood management in the catchment around Stroud in Gloucestershire. It is a detailed video which shows specific measures that have been taken to slow the flow by a range of individuals and organisations. It is well worth a watch.

Another blog ‘Tree planting and reducing flooding – will it work?‘ was also brought to my attention by a reader of my blog. It is by Miles Marshall of the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology. He was the lead researcher who carried out the work at Pontbren in mid Wales. In the study trees were planted on previously grazed pasture and they measured the subsequent effects on soil hydraulic properties and runoff processes. They found that soil infiltration rates were 67x times faster and surface runoff volumes were reduced by 78% under trees compared with grassland.

Marshall rightly cautions the reader saying that more research is required to determine which species of tree work best, what age of tree is best, can the ideas be scaled up to make a real difference etc.

He also says that tree planting to reduce flooding is only one of the options that needs to be considered. He argues that catchment wide initiatives such as the one described above for the Stroud Valleys are needed as well. As I have argued many times before land use is also a key issue e.g. maize on steep slopes near to streams and roads.