Calm after the storm

Yesterday in my blog I had some pictures of the little brook in Exton in full spate – see here. It has all calmed down again now.

Exton brook
All the water is back in the channel

Sun catching the pollarded willow

Blue sky through the alder branches

Pied wagtail
A pied wagtail checking through the flood remains for a meal

I had quite a bit of feedback to yesterday’s blog especially around the issue of cross compliance – that is the basic practices that farmers need to carry out in order to be eligible to claim their subsidies. Apparently on the 31/12/15 DEFRA updated the guidelines which need to be followed in 2016! I will be looking into that today and will update my blog in due course.

Storm Frank comes close to home

Over the past few weeks I have been writing about the floods in the North of England and in Wales – yesterday they came much closer to home with Storm Frank.

Yellow warning
It all started off with a Yellow Warning of rain for Devon which didn’t even cover the area where I live.

Storm FrankIt must be said that the rain map didn’t look too clever – by 11.30am it was raining pretty steadily

So I decided to go out and take a few pictures and videos – this is the centre of Woodbury – a few  miles from my house

Note the really brown water – Devon’s soils on the move again.

I then tried to go home – unfortunately I couldn’t get home because the roads were flooded and had been closed by the Police – I tried several different routes – all were closed and some had the inevitable stranded cars in the middle of the water. Eventually I got home – four hours later

Exe flooding
This Environment Agency map shows the extent of river flooding south of Exeter – the area shaded red was full to the brim with the brown coloured rain

Exton brook
This is the tiny brook which runs past my house – a very small catchment which had overtopped and flooded within hours

This is the brook from my garden at around 4.15pm

Here is a video of the same scene

I have now discovered that two Anaerobic Digester power plants have recently been built and opened to the east of Exeter – one in 2013 and the other in 2014. That explains now why the land use around here has changed so much in recent years – people are being encouraged to grow maize to feed these power plants. I have written before about maize – see here and here as have many others – see here,  here and here. The real problem with maize is that it is harvested in the autumn and the fields are then left bare and compacted until the spring. Any winter rain which falls on such fields especially if they are on slopes (which in Devon many are) quickly runs off with some soil onto the adjacent roads and into the brooks and then flows rapidly towards the Exe Estuary.

I would really urge the Environment Agency, Devon County Council and DEFRA to have a long hard look at this issue. Land use has a major role to play in reducing flooding – it is not all about building flood defence structures – see Tony Juniper’s article on this very topic after the Somerset Floods in 2014 here.

I came across this very interesting tweet from Oliver Dowding, who is an organic farmer and on the Council of the Soil Association.

Oliver Dowding

That is a staggering fact and goes a very long way to explain much of the flooding we see today. With the weather in such turmoil and driven by climate change we are going to see more intense events over the coming months and years like Storms Desmond, Eva and Frank. To make any progress in protecting people from the floods we need to look at how we manage the land in our river catchments as well as building flood defences around our villages, town and cities.








Rain and maize don’t mix

It rained pretty heavily Friday night and Saturday morning and as a result the little stream near my garden in Exton was in spate. It often does and unfortunately Station Road by the Church sometimes floods.

The little stream on this occasion stayed within its banks but what was startling was the colour of the water – it was deep brown. The stream doesn’t have a large catchment so I decided to have a look around Exton and Woodbury to see if I could work out why the river was so coloured.

Exton stream
The little stream up past Woodbury was also running brown

Exton maize
It soon became clear what the problem was – quite a lot of the catchment is growing maize which isn’t harvested until late autumn. Harvesting maize also requires a lot of tractor work which compacts the soils and causes wheel ruts to form. The fields at this time of year are devoid of any vegetation.

Here is the same field in September resplendent with its crop of maize. Maize is used as a fodder crop for cattle or can be used in an anaerobic digester to produce energy. I don’t know the fate of the maize around Exton and Woodbury though.

Exton maize2The problems are exacerbated when the crops are on sloping fields. They quickly become waterlogged during heavy rain which then runs off the land taking a suspension of soil with it. The rain is literally washing the field’s soil into the stream. In addition – as the fields are compacted and waterlogged the speed that the water runs off at is accelerated which leads to quicker flash flooding.

Exton cereal
Elsewhere in the catchment are autumn sown cereal crops – again the fields are largely bare and again the rain can wash the soil away.  Maize fields are however particularly susceptible to this phenomenon.

Exton grass
The catchment also possesses permanent pastures which are much better at holding back the rain from the river

As a result of all of this I have done a little research into the growing of maize in Britain. Apparently over the last decade there has been an enormous growth in the growing of maize and now over 160,000 ha. are grown in southern Britain with a significant proportion in Devon. This growth has been pretty controversial too. Interesting I found a 2014 report from the Soil Association on the problems – it is worth a read click here for their report ‘Runaway Maize’.

It doesn’t seem to me to be a very sustainable farming practice if it leads to such soil degradation. It is also the height of irony that on one hand the Environment Agency are working to stop communities from flooding whilst their parent Department of Governement DEFRA are promoting and supporting via the Common Agricultural Policy and the Renewable Heat Incentive the growth of maize.