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).

A reply to my maize letter to Hugo Swire MP

Over the past six months I have written a lot about maize and it possible role in flooding incidents around Exton and Woodbury in East Devon – see here for all my recent blogs. In one of those blogs I said I written to my MP Hugo Swire to raise my concerns over the matter and I said I would report back when he replied. Not one reply but three including one from Li Truss, the Secretary of State for the Environment! Thank you Mr Swire. Here they are.

Swire 1-2


Swire 2Swire 3

Swire 4

There is clearly a great sense of concern within DEFRA and the Environment Agency concerning maize around pollution issues and localised flooding. Again it clearly shows that land use practices have a big effect on flooding in East Devon. This all must be costing the EA and DEFRA a fortune! I wonder how many farmers in the local area have had their Basic Farm Payments cut as a result of cross compliance breaches? I also wonder whether the ‘significant efforts’ put in by the EA will actually improve things. The problem is that on soils which are vulnerable to soil erosion the growing of maize is completely incompatible and no end of initiatives and effort will change that. DEFRA could make the EA’s life much more easy by providing much tougher / clearer guidelines about where maize should and should not be grown and then beefing up their cross compliance rules so that there was a real deterrent to farmers growing maize in inappropriate places.

Interesting the Commons Environmental Audit Committee are currently carrying out an inquiry into Soil Health and on Wednesday 9 March 2016 they took oral evidence from Lord Krebs, Chair of the Adaptation Sub-Committee, Committee on Climate Change, David Thompson, Senior Policy Analyst supporting the Adaptation Sub- Committee, Committee on Climate Change, Peter Melchett, Policy Director, Soil Association and  Professor David Powlson, Rothamsted Research. You can download a full transcript of that session here. Maize featured during that inquiry – see Q43, 44, 45, 55, 77, 78 and 87.

Surely something is going to change soon? Otherwise it is just all talk.

Should farmers be paid to allow their land to flood?

There was an interesting piece on the BBC website yesterday where Roger Harrabin was reporting on potential Government plans to pay farmers to let their land flood, therefore slowing up the flow and hopefully then protecting towns and cities downstream from flooding – see here. Allowing land to flood to prevent catastrophe in urban areas is an essential part of the multi-faceted approach that is need to combat the storms.

The question that needs to be carefully thought through is where should the taxpayer fund farmers to do this?

Flooding is of course an entirely natural process and over the millennia the land has adapted to accommodate this – an obvious example being the flood plain. An area where the river spills onto during periods of heavy rain. In the case of the River Clyst near my home this happens around 6 times a year and the water can lie on the land for days, even weeks.

Clyst 4
The River Clyst’s flood plain

Surely the Government isn’t thinking of funding farmers to allow this to happen? It is a natural process and the flooding is happening already whether we like it or not.

In other places the flood plain has been ‘protected’ from the river because a bund / built up bank has been built to stop the water flooding onto the land (of course in big floods the banks do eventually overtop and flood the land). This type of land has then been sub-surface drained which has allowed the growing of arable crops or re-seeded grasslands at the expense of the wet marshy grassland that was there before. In places like this the removal of the banks would re-create the flood plain again and provide protection downstream via the creation of  large but temporary ‘reservoirs’.


The creation of these bunds and raised banks  occurred decades ago and were usually the work of the old Flood Defence Committees and were largely funded by the tax payer. It allowed farming to become more productive. I suspect that these are the types of places where the Government is thinking of paying farmers to allow their fields to flood.

There is of course a big irony here – tax payers funded the original raised bank schemes which facilitated a more productive agriculture which will now have to be compensated for if the land is allowed to flood in the future.

In other places the rivers have been deepened and straightened  which has meant that water rarely floods onto the land except in extreme circumstances – these areas could be ‘restored’ to re-create functioning flood plains. Again the funding mechanisms for the original works came from the public purse and led to agricultural improvements.

Jeremy Pursglove in his book Taming the Flood – rehearsed all these arguments back in 1986 and gave many examples of how to undo these situations to aid flood defence.

Finally, in order to protect vulnerable communities schemes can be designed to hold water back – even divert it away from the river in times of high flows – the so called ‘upstream solutions’ such as the National Trust’s work on the Holnicote Estate in Somerset (see here)  and the Pickering scheme so beautifully described here. In cases such as these it is entirely legitimate to fund farmers to allow their land to flood.

Flood plains make up a tiny part of most our river catchments but where and when to carry out these interventions will need thought. I suspect that the Environment Agency have a very good idea where they would like to see this happen and I suspect that is what David Rooke was alluding to when he spoke to the Commons Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee a couple of days ago.

Screen Shot 2016-01-07 at 11.38.23
I will be interested to see this debate as it unfolds.



A little bit of snow on Dartmoor

I had a meeting at Finch yesterday morning and on the way into Sticklepath I took this picture of a snowy Cosdon Beacon.

Cosdon1From what I could see most of the high moor had a reasonable dusting of snow (double click the photo to enlarge it)

Cosdon2 I like the patterns of the medieval field below Cosdon and I think the colours of the arable field contrast rather nicely

Finch 1This is the best patch of snow that could be managed at Finch Foundry but the roads down into the village were a bit slushy.

Elsewhere on the moor my colleagues could get into Widecombe first thing as the hill down from Haytor was too icy and snowy – they did manage to get there by noon.

All the snow has now gone, melted and washed away by the heavy rain that arrived late afternoon. We now have flood warnings on a number of rivers – including the Teign, Dart and Bovey – welcome to the winter!

If you want to see what river levels are like near you – follow this link to the Environment Agency’s river level pages.

This Facebook page shows you where all the Flood Warnings and Flood Alerts currently are.

Four days of weather warnings

An amazing amount of rain last night – made commuting home rather a trial! I have just been looking at the Met Office web site and see that we have another 4 successive days of weather warnings for rain running up to Friday – see here for the Met Office warnings page.Weather warningRain like this inevitably has an effect on our river levels and as a result it is worth keeping an eye on the Environment Agency’s web site. I find their map of the Region’s gauging stations really useful – click on a specific river and then go to a specific guaging station and it will give you a live time view of the river levels along with the recent history. See here for further details.

The EA also run a service which shows flood warnings across the Region – see here. Currently the Axe, the Exe, the Teign, the Culm and the Clyst are on Flod Alert.