Defra drowning not waving

George Monbiot pretty much nailed it on Monday – the approach to flooding in this country is woeful and relies on treating symptoms not the underlying illness.

There was a great rush of political comment about the floods in the north of England, not just in Cumbria, which seemed to focus on how much money had been spent on flood defences and whether it was enough, and which party had spent the most and spent it best. Fair enough, but only after a little calm reflection has it begun to emerge that tackling climate change and unsustainable land uses are part of flood defence too.

Just read John Ashton’s blistering attack on this government’s actions on climate change in yesterday’s Guardian to get a taste of how awful ‘the greenest government ever”s record is in this time when the world has come together to try to resolve the future, and present, impacts of climate change.  And it’s not as though the impacts of climate change on flooding are a secret. We need to act now to reduce the likelihood of worse events in the future being caused by a changing climate, and to act now to reduce the impacts of inevitable climate change already built into the system by the uncooperative behaviour of carbon dioxide molecules remaining in the atmosphere for such a long time.

Yes it has rained a lot, an awful lot, and that is likely to cause problems but how we treat that water, wherever it falls, is important too. When a raindrop falls on the Duke of Westminster’s grouse moor in the Forest of Bowland it does not stay there. Under the influence of gravity it makes its way to the sea via, often, the River Wyre.  If our raindrop stays in a blanket bog in the Forest of Bowland for a while then it is not yet adding to the spate down stream. If the grouse moor is drained and burned then we know, yes we know, that it will make its journey more quickly and meet up with many more water droplets who have also been hurried off the hills. There were high alerts, including of the highest level, along the River Wyre at the weekend.

If our raindrop falls in the Lake District, let us say in Matterdale, the setting for my book of the year The Shepherd’s Life, then its passage to the Solway via the Eden is strongly influenced by the land use of Matterdale and its surrounds. All those shepherds who just want to be left alone to get on with their traditional way of life (provided the subsidy cheques of townies keep coming), determine the speed with which each raindrop gets to Glenridding, Penrith, and Carlisle and cause the floods we saw on our TVs, or for some, out of their windows or into their houses.  Lack of natural vegetation (like trees!) and compacted short grassland will not delay our raindrop very much and so it will quickly meet others heading off the hills into becks and rivers and flood an urban shop or restaurant miles away. How we treat the hills affects the floods in the valleys – they are connected just as this means that the shepherd and the shopkeeper are connected.

We know all this. We’ve known it for a long time.

A £50m flood fund is kindness at the short-term scale, and no doubt a great relief to those affected.  But we need much more to deal with the causes of extreme weather events and the nature of the landscape in which they occur.  Yes, we need hard defences such as walls (which never seem to be quite high enough) but we should invest much more in soft defences such as trees and bogs too.


46 Replies to “Defra drowning not waving”

  1. Noteworthy, with your example of Matterdale and the Eden catchment, that RSPB Hawswater are working with United Utilities on very extensive measures to reduce grazing pressure, improve the vegetation and improve the run off situation in another part of the same catchment.

    1. I suppose that is one benefit of a conservation organisation that is trying to work at both a local and a landscape level. I am not a big fan of buzzwords as a rule but “living landscapes” has a great deal of credibility if all landowners can be persuaded of the benefits.

    2. Yes but with a degree of hostility from the Minister Rory Stewart and the Lakes farming mafia who wrongly see it as an all out assault on their existence and lifestyle. Fact is DEFRA should be leading on this stuff across the Lakes via NE, EA and LDNPA and not resulting to the typical ESA/HLS sticking plaster approach of not changing things too much as to upset ‘cultural heritage’, wasting a load of public money and delivering sod all public goods. DEFRA and the minister should have recently been behind supporting UU erecting a fence at Thirlmere to prevent widespread sustained overgrazing impacting on water quality, run-off etc but instead doing nothing as it was torpedoed by those with a fear of change and vested interest.

  2. It’s a desperate situation.
    From BBC news home page “Patterdale parish councillor Dennis Henderson said: “I fear that we will get another flood because until the beck is properly excavated and re-engineered by the Environment Agency, I think we’re going to be prone to these floods every time we get a prolonged wet spell.””
    They still don’t get it – a look at google earth of the catchment ie the ‘back’ side of Helvellyn shows there’s not a tree to be seen apart from a small forestry plantation near the youth hostel
    Much of Matterdale is owned by the National Trust if my OS map is correct, surely there must be some initiatives they could engage with their tenants to progress. Hart Side, Wolf Crags, Swineside Knott, and Heron (=Erne/eagle?) Pike allude to former wildlife on the Common

    1. “I think we’re going to be prone to these floods every time we get a prolonged wet spell”

      This illustrates an underlying problem – contemporary commentary versus historical record. Cockermouth was flooded in 1771, 1852, 1874, 1918, 1931, 1932, 1933, 1938, 1954, 1966, 2005, 2008, 2009. Some of those dates even pre-date Arrhenius, Froelich, William Wordsworth, Beatrix Potter and Mr. Henderson.

      You might think some durable strategies to reduce flood risk would have been in place by now but they aren’t. It’s not rocket science – and might not cost much (relative to destroying the local economies). But successive gubmints have found it easier to burn money on pointless vanity projects using the amount burnt as a performance indicator/virtue signal leaving us short of the means of addressing the known problems of the past and the here and now. Advised by, among others, John Ashton

  3. For the second time in a week Forest Enterprise England’s practical delivery of the future has come to the fore – first it was non-lead ammunition, now it is flood protection: as George Monbiot pointed out very, very clearly the one river flowing into Carlisle that didn’t go wild was the Liza – because the ground breaking Wild Ennerdale, dating back to 2001, project had removed engineering and allowed the river to re-establish its natural course. Even Liz Truss mentioned the ‘Slowing the Flow’ project at Pickering in the North Yorks Moors whilst river restoration – restoring the natur5al course of ‘engineered’ rivers – in the New Forest dates back to the late 1990s. Every one of these projects was a partnership – with the National Trust in Ennerdaqle, with the EA and others in Yorkshire and the New Forest. No one owner can do it alone and we must not make the typical political/ vested interest mistake of thinking it is land vs hard engineering: both have their place. I’d always seen EA as irrevocably dominated by hard engineering – but in recent years there has been a gradual shift to a broader view, supported at a practical level by the likes of FE and at a policy level by the likes of NE and their vision for the uplands. We now know that both organisations have been knocked back – their thinking literally pulped & expunged from the web by the current political leadership. Be under no illusion that that is as serious and culpable, if not more so, than the delays and cuts to more obvious hard engineering projects.

    1. ” …very, very clearly the one river flowing into Carlisle that didn’t go wild was the Liza”

      This is probably news to Liza

    2. It is annoying that you parrot Monbiot’s reference to Ennerdale as an exemplar in his article about flooding. He implied that “engineering works” had been removed from the River Liza in the valley – wrong, it was just one “Ireland” bridge from Woundell Beck that drains into the Liza, and which is then canalised until it reaches the lake. He then says the Liza was “allowed to braid, meander” giving a reference to one of our MSc students, and which actually says:
      “Within the present analysis it is impossible to determine whether there has been any change in the River Liza as a result of the Wild Ennerdale project initiation in 2003, although considering the small changes in land-use and the fact that the valley has only been subject to low-intensity land-use since the Bronze Age (National Trust, 2003) means significant changes are not anticipated”

  4. PS £50 million is great – but there seems to have been a collective memory lapse over the 2007 summer floods which cost the economy c £3 billion – pretty much the same as a year’s subsidy to farming. And, as Dieter Helm points out, under our perverse national accounting all that building work, new carpets and furniture to repair the devastated properties will actually ADD to GDP !

  5. While not disagreeing with many or any of the sentiments above, I’d like to know a bit more about the actual impact of afforesting/re-wilding. Clearly wild and forested catchments in the world experience flood events. What I want to know is to what extent will say a 200year flood be ameliorated by a more natural catchment. Would a 100% forested catchment or with intact un-drained or burned bog land reduce the 200year flood to a 50, or would it be more like a 195 year flood.

    We can all see that it would make a difference, but in what circumstances and by how much?

    1. bimbling – good questions, and it depends. There are a few figures in Monbiot’s article (see link in my blog). It would be a big impact but one has to admit that you can’t eat trees and you can eat sheep, but then again trees store carbon whereas sheep belch out methane – so there are always balances to be struck. this doesn’t look like a bad place to start

      1. We need more wood pasture in these places and forage (eg acorns) from the trees can provide more feed for the livestock than does the displaced grassland.

    2. We had 314mm of rain !! here in Cumbria, and rivers at levels 1-2m above the highest ever recorded. We have had weeks of rain. Even in a re-wilded , and restored peat landscape at this time of year those soils would be charged with water with limited capacity to store much more. Transpiration from a more heterogenous landscape would not be huge (broadleaves are dormant, conifers would be better). More forests and restored peat soils are part of the answer (yes please). But it is lazy / false science to claim that these floods would not have happened. Mobiot & Avery are over-egging this one.

      1. While I agree that re-wilding and restoration of the uplands can never totally remove the risk of flooding from exceptional rainfall, there is good evidence that it can make a substantial difference. I can do no better that underline the comment by Len Wallace below – the Pontbren project has shown spectacular results, documented by the local farmers themselves:
        The Pontbren project has brought benefits for wildlife and farming productivity as well as flood prevention. I don’t think anyone has ever suggested that transpiration is an important mechanism – it is more about changes to the soil structure.
        On this issue (and many others) I think we would be well advised to pay more, not less, attention to what Monbiot and Avery are telling us.

        1. “I don’t think anyone has ever suggested that transpiration is an important mechanism – it is more about changes to the soil structure”

          Spot-on AlanTwo.

          And the last thing we need is more coniferous forestry in many of our upland catchments – many are too acidic as it is.

          1. It doesn’t matter what the soil structure is if it is full up, and charged with water. It has limited capacity to take much more water. Like our soils in Cumbria have been. And it runs off. Transpiration is important.
            Conifers are ok , when we import timber we export environmental costs, the UK has one of the most sustainable forestry sectors in the world and is recognised as such by Greenpeace and WWF, and stringent certification and forest standards. UK is the worlds 3rd largest timber importer. We need more forests, for carbon capture, wildlife, as part of an integrated flood mitigation . . . . and jobs and timber, triple bottom line

          2. I’m all for more trees in the uplands (like Monbiot), but large-scale (‘blanket’) afforestation with near-monocultures of exotic conifers was a ghastly mistake we made decades ago. Let’s not jump out of the sheep-grazing frying pan into the conifer forestry fire.
            We can (or should be able to) do things so much better than that.

          3. “It doesn’t matter what the soil structure is if it is full up, and charged with water. It has limited capacity to take much more water. Like our soils in Cumbria have been”

            I agree with that, but the operative word is ‘if’. Over a third of the land I inspected on Monday, whilst in Cumbria, was nowhere near full capacity due to compaction. That compaction wouldn’t have been there under a well developed tree root system.

            I’m also in total agreement that we need to reduce timber imports and I’m not opposed to coniferous plantations per se – just against establishing new ones in catchments where over-acidification is already a big enough problem as it is.

          4. I always thought the HOST system was a good way to go with soil/water relationships but it doesn’t seem to have gained much traction or infiltrated the collective consciousness and I wonder whether it will wither on the vine like the Soil Survey data that describes Denbigh soils as well drained. Not any more, Boyo!

          5. I’ve always found HOST useful – but yes you are quite right. It’s certainly an improvement on WRAP I gather.

            A little bird told me that there is little or no mention of HOST classifications on the BASIS Soil & Water Certificate Module syllabus. And it doesn’t even warrant any mention in any of the Cross Compliance guidance, I would have thought it was useful tool for risk assessing soils, but then I guess for HOST to be of any use you do need to be able to identify the soil in the first place. It’s remarkable how many grassland farmers on the western side of England have ‘heavy soils’…

  6. The media coverage (George Monbiot excluded) of the flooding in the Lake District has been abysmal. It has focused on the impact of those whose homes have been flooded which is devastating for those involved. But there is no analysis of the causes of the floods or ways in which they might be mitigated other than calls for more or higher hard flood defences. It is lazy journalism.
    If, as predicted by climate change, rainfall events become more extreme then we need to consider land use within the catchment and management on a whole catchment basis.
    Surely a task force of interested parties could at computer modelling what changes in land management would be required to reduce flood risks to the major conurbations. With National Trust having such a large land holding in the Lake District it should be a major player in any such a study.

  7. Eden Valley floodplains either heavily sheepgrazed or improved silage (No wet, rushy fields to be seen), ditto now a lot of Yorkshire Dales. Last time I was in Eden Valley sheep were crawling all over a beck which had been ‘fenced’ against sheep! Yorkshire Dales: lovely upland limestone landscapes sheep wrecked (this year) – no flowers. Loads of thistles (fox control = loads of rabbits) so in space of one week saw three guys out with quad bikes and sprayers. Oops. There goes another plant of Melancholy Thistle (Twayblade, Field Scabious, Sweet Cicely … at Keld – location of some of Britain’s best wild flower verges and meadows). Grouse moors so intensively managed ….. classic examples of upland landscapes that have no/little capacity to hold water back. No better in the lowlands. Locally, Cloford Common upstream of Frome has mysteriously disappeared and is now rye grass ley, deep drained, very recently. So long as farming is supplying global commodity markets and the industry and Ms Truss wedded to the objective of feeding China from our countryside, I see no end in sight. Time to have a drink.

  8. Following George Monbiot’s article, I thought I should do some more reading and used my friend Google to help me. First I found this:
    I suspect you may have had quite a lot to do with this comprehensive document, from back in 2007, Mark.

    I also read the UK National Ecosystem Assessment from 2011 (, which was produced by a number of august researchers, under the auspices of DEFRA and other national agencies. Its findings represent quite a challenge; the picture it presents is not encouraging. I noted: ‘To date climate change has had a relatively small impact on the UK’s biodiversity and ecosystems. However, impacts are predicted to increase over the coming decades, with more severe weather events and changes to rainfall patterns (Figure 7), with implications for agriculture, ood control and many other services, both locally and nationally.’

    Finally, I found DERA’s Uplands Policy review from the same year ( What a depressing and underwhelming pice of work! I was not surprised to find a passage lauding benefits of the driven grouse industry, but the thing that really struck me was the puny response to the challenges I had read about in the other two documents. Whilst I would not want to decry the problems faced by hill farmers, I waded through page after page about their needs in search of the promised ‘environment and biodiversity’ strand. At the very end, I found this:
    ‘A recent review of public attitudes to and preferences for upland landscapes has explored published evidence on the attitudes of the general public, users and upland residents. Findings indicate that there is considerable variability in views about the upland landscape among different groups in society. Its key conclusions are that members of the public (including those that do not make direct use) are willing to pay, in principle, to maintain the upland landscape. In general, respondents favoured the maintenance of today‘s landscape, or one with an increase in some habitats such as broad leaved woodland with the enhancement of other features, such as dry stone walls.’

    So there we have it – in place of science, some kind of vague ‘vox pop’ as to how we like our uplands to look. I remain pessimistic regarding any real environmental progress – in the uplands, or regarding climate change, the prosecution of birds of prey and driven grouse shooting – while certain vested interests are given priority over long-term need.

  9. Definitely time to add up all of the money given to farmers in the Lake District and to ask what the public needs to get for that money. Its fairly simple really – do we need lots of lamb, mutton and wool and to know that a few hundred people are able to carry on the same lifestyle their fathers did – or do we need slower and cleaner water flows, fewer landslips, carbon capture and more wildlife?

    At the moment, almost the entire Lake District landscape is covered in sheep at huge public expense (because people don’t really want huge amounts of lamb, mutton or wool). Remember the hey-day of upland sheep farming was when wool was a very valuable product – these days the wool is worth almost nothing and most of it is burnt. Almost all upland sheep loose money for their owners and they can only keep going because of the subsidies.

    We’re not going to abolish upland sheep farming as it has too many supporters, but even a compromise where key catchments come out of sheep farming would be miles better than what we have now.

    1. Do you think it is the same life-style as their fathers? Given the average age of farmers in the uplands, their fathers would have been farming pre the subsidies of the last 40 years that have ripped the heart out of the uplands. People go on about iconic upland landscapes but Wordsworth and Girton would not recognise these devastated places now.

      1. Fair point. Of course the lifestyle has changed. Pre- subsidy it would have been very much a precarious subsistence lifestyle, with most families having to turn their hands to all sorts of other different jobs to scrape a living…part of the problem is that many farmers now define themselves entirely as upland sheep farmers and feel threatened when it is suggested that there might be some other way.

        1. There is another way. A comment from elsewhere from a farmer in Humpton Dumpton, near Winchester: “I’ve been spotted rummaging through the hedges and tracks that border my farm, searching high and low for, would you believe, an electricity substation. It turns out that if you are lucky enough to find one on or near your farm, and it’s over 33kV, you’re blessed: you can now go ‘generator farming’.
          On a concrete pad (hmm, carbon footprint?), surrounded by a massive earth bund, an array of diesel-powered (yes, diesel) generators are installed and linked to the grid. Their sole purpose is to switch on and provide back-up power when the national grid is found wanting. They are known as ‘short term operating reserves’, or Stors.
          The figures (as supplied by Strutt and Parker) are astonishing. The average Stor will supply 20MW, and so will need 50 400kW generators. The rents are even more mind blowing. The rule of thumb is £1,000-£2,500/MW capacity, so for a 20MW Stor – well, do the sums yourself. The other good news (assuming you yourself don’t live in earshot) is they tend to only work at night – probably something to do with the inherent night-time uselessness of solar farms. And if you do live nearby, fifty grand a year will pay for some serious double-glazing, or even a new house at the far end of the farm.”

          A wonderful boondoggle! Key to success though but is the proximity of the adequate substation – absence of which should be a supplementary definition of LFA, Shirley

  10. I think that one of the best voices for change comes ironically from the Pontbren initiative which was started by sheep farmers. For various reasons they decided to put in shelterbelts, new hedgerows and ponds etc. They found that wood harvested and chipped from these plots could provide a cheaper and better form of bedding for their sheep and obviously wildlife prospered with the new habitat. One day an official was walking around in heavy rain on one of the farms involved when he observed that water running across the top of the fields disappeared when it hit a row of trees. The farmers had noticed this phenomenon too. The soil was so compacted the rain didn’t even get to filter down into the land drains, just run off the fields in sheets. They carried out some tests and found that the rain water was diverted down on the trees’ root systems, previously it had been thought this only happened when roots died and rotted away. Not so, tests shows that the trees increased absorption of water by the soil about 67 times! I contacted the Woodland Trust Wales and asked if they could possibly film this – would obviously be brilliant advert for reforestation to prevent flooding, apparently seeing the water disappear is very striking. I didn’t get a reply and when I tried to contact the Pontbren farmers the given email address was invalid. Feel this might be worth pursuing – both showing the water running over top of fields then being diverted into soil by trees. A lot of excellent articles on preventing flooding, but visual evidence would do a hell of a lot to back it up.

  11. Filbert is right: it would be a surprise to the Liza which runs into Ennerdale water and out the far end as the Ehen and thence into the sea to the west through Egremont which as far as we know didn’t flood.

    With respect to Bimbling’s very good question, wild Ennerdale started by removing a lot of trees. It also reduced grazing pressure as well as ‘freeing’ the river. Any catchment solution is going to be unique to its site and is not a simple trees vs sheep – it should be an outcome led combination of solutions, something we are incredibly bad at in our sectoralised world. And as far as Mark’s trees and sheep, yes you can eat sheep but in fact if the total primary production of the uplands-trees, sheep, grouse – disappeared tomorrow the economy wouldn’t even blip – whereas the a few more inches on the 2007 summer floods could have cost money that really hurt the economy and its also worth remembering that lamb and timber can come from anywhere. You can only control flooding in the catchment at risk.

  12. At some point I’m sure we will rake over many points again – maybe not in the context of flooding but in the wider land use debate. In particular I’m interested in what Sue Everett raised briefly – who exactly are we feeding from land we subsidise, and why? Not a single mention of suckler beef here yet most of the silage produced in the Lakes passes through them. What is the burden of pollution that arises from subsidised beef production that raises stores in the upland in-byes to be finished on lowland pastures? Is it to be justified on the grounds that “cattle are necessary” to clean up the tufty stuff that sheep leave so that every in-bye field looks nice and tidy for the tourists?

  13. About fifteen years ago – I think it was soon after the November 2000 flooding of Worcester and York – I attended a lecture by Professor Chris Baines in which he made the memorable comment that our national policy appears to be aimed at shifting water as quickly as possible from farmers’ fields and into peoples’ living rooms!

  14. George Monbiot is a brilliant journalist and is so often right that perhaps we miss when he is wrong or partly wrong. In his piece he noted :”Had all the rivers of Cumbria been rewilded in this way, there might have been no floods, then or now.” I really think this is an exaggeration and an over-simplification. First, rivers in areas with natural (wild) vegetation flood. That’s what they do when there is a lot of rain. Secondly, flow in a river will depend often in a complicated way on the stores of water in a catchment (e.g. the soil) and the transfers of water between these stores. It seems intuitive that, if water is held back within a soil during heavy rainfall, there will be less flooding. In isolation that is a reasonable expectation, but, if water is held back too much during one rainstorm, the soils may saturate during a succeeding storm so that rapid overland flow occurs and the river floods. It is also possible for there to be unintended consequences when there is a change in land use. For example, peak flow in a tributary may typically occur two hours before the peak flow in the main river (at the junction with the tributary). If the land use in the catchment of the tributary were changed from, say, pasture to forest, the effect might be a lower peak from the tributary but one that occurs two hours later such that it adds to the peak flow in the main channel making flooding downstream of the tributary more likely. This is a hypothetical example, but illustrates that the binary arguments we seem to be having (sheep vs forests) could be missing a lot of important detail.

    A good example of such binary arguments (with attendant unhelpful name calling) can be seen in George Monbiot’s Twitter spat with Tim Farron on Tuesday 8th December on the role of agricultural drains on river flows. Tim Farron tweeted “so you need the flood plains drained by active hill farmers to soak it up before it hits the villages and towns”, while George Monbiot countered with “Draining them means they DON’T soak up the water! This is the sort of perversity and ignorance I’d expect from UKIP”. In fact, if anything, George Monbiot was being somewhat ignorant; ignorant of some basic hydrology. By lowering the water table and increasing the thickness of the unsaturated zone in the soil, drains can, indeed, create storage space for rainfall. The question is whether such storage space makes a difference. Drains can be very efficient at moving water into rivers once water has seeped into them and that efficiency may contribute to flooding. The problem was nicely summed up by Mark Robinson, a hydrologist at the then Institute of Hydrology, in 1990 when he said:

    ” Much of the reason for these conflicting opinions lies in the relative importance given to two factors. Firstly, the ability of drains to carry water faster than subsurface flow through the soil (increasing peak flows). Secondly, the increase in the soil storage capacity created by the lowered water table (reducing peak flows). Opinions about the balance between these two factors are often based not just on scientific reasoning, but are also often influenced more than a little by ‘Vested’ or ‘political’ interests.

    “Hence it appears that, in order to support a case, people are often very selective in the ‘facts’ they use. Both one and the other set of arguments have been quoted by supporters or opposers of drainage as establishing their position. Thus those town dwellers and conservationists who make claims that agricultural drainage ‘speeds up’ the movement of water to stream channels and increases peak flows downstream, usually point to the shortening of flow paths and the removal of former wetland areas where flood waters were stored. On the other hand, many farmers will use the argument that farm drainage creates an enlarged available soil water storage capacity which then acts as a ‘buffer’ to moderate peak flows. The lowering of soil water tables in drained land is often cited as evidence for this view.

    “Neither ‘lobby’ addresses the real question, the relative importance of these various factors It is hoped that this report, building on the work of previous authors and using scientific analysis of a specially assembled data set, will go a long way to replace the emotive arguments by ones based on factual evidence.”

    The debate in 1990 does not seem to have moved on much. I’m pleased people like Mark (Avery) and George are questioning how land use affects the flooding ‘behaviour’ of catchments and that they are also questioning the often unthinking suggestions that re-engineering rivers will solve our problems. However, we need to avoid over-simplifying the debate and should acknowledge that many catchments are complicated and that any changes in land use should be carefully thought through.

    Finally, a comment on transpiration. Transpiration and evaporation are often unimportant in catchment water budgets at this time of year and probably represent less than five percent of the last month’s rainfall receipt in those areas of Cumbria that have experienced flooding.

    1. Andy – welcome and many thanks.

      I hope you don’t think I oversimplified the debate – because I don’t believe I did.

      I’d agree that any changes in land use should be carefully thought through – that would be in complete contrast to how we have acquired the land uses with which we are stuck at the moment. The burden of evidence should lie as heavily on those who wish to keep things the same as those who favour change and yet ‘give us more evidence’ is the first thing that those who wish to keep things just as they are will say.

      1. Mark – I think my concern is that there is a danger that those who rightly promote consideration of whole-catchment solutions to the problem of flooding are reducing the debate to something like ‘re-wild and all will be well’ or ‘plant x million trees and all will be well’. What I tried to show in my original post was that it’s not that simple. Indeed, I really don’t think we know enough about how different land uses compare hydrologically (e.g. pastures with differing levels of grazing intensity). I appreciate that awareness raising often works better with a simple message, but I was disappointed with the way George Monbiot (whom I admire greatly) framed aspects of the debate and how he responded to Tim Farron on the effect of drains. I agree completely, however, with Ernest Moss in his post today about Tim Farron’s tweet on correlation and also Ernest’s concerns about the floods partnership group – where are the catchment hydrologists in all of this? Let’s hope community flood defence groups raise the issue of catchment land use and how it can affect flood intensity. Finally, I agree with your comment on where the burden of evidence should lie.

        1. I agree entirely that the debate has unfortunately been somewhat polarised into Rewilding vs Flood defence. This is an unfortunate side effect of main contributors to the public /media debate. It also ignores the fact that there is good work going on elsewhere in between these two.

          In a great deal of the country, it is absolutely possible to reduce flood risk using Natural flood Management measures within the context of a farmed landscape whether or not there is a habitat we would class as “upland”.

          This is exactly what we are doing in the Stroud Frome Rural SuDs project in Gloucestershire. We are funded by the local Regional Flod and Coastal Committee to implement NFM throughout a 235km2 catchment with no upland peat bogs to be seen for miles around and certainly little chance of extensive re-wilding. Lots of examples of slowing the flow, creating small & dispersed storage, increasing infiltration.

          We know that it is not going to prevent flooding of the type seen in Cumbria, but then, this debate has also been a distortion of the issue. We do not implement NFM in a vacuum. If we can make enough of a difference to allow flood defences to work, or reduce flood risk to the properties that flood reasonably regularly (surprisingly quite a lot in rural areas) in much smaller rainfall events than those seen in Cumbria, then this will be a good outcome. Plus, we get the multiple benefits of doing that by improving the habitat and reducing silt transport into bigger water courses.

          Take a look at our website
          or better still watch our film, made with the help of land owners and flood victims in the Stroud Valleys.


        2. I think Andy Baird’s comments have been extremely helpful – authoritative and balanced. I totally agree that, as with most scientific issues, things are complex and individual cases really should be studied in detail and considered on their merits. However, I am concerned that politicians and the public generally don’t cope well with this sort of complexity and nuance.

          I would suggest that things are already quite polarised, although not exactly in the way he framed them. The divide seems to me to be between those who argue that things are complicated and need careful study and a range of tailored solutions, and those who say ‘No they’re not – it’s very simple. It’s obvious that we need to dig more ditches and drains, dredge and straighten more rivers, and get the water into the sea as quickly as possible. Stop mucking about and just get on with it.’ Sadly, many landowners, government politicians and members of the public seem to be in the latter camp. I’m sure we can all remember Mr. Pickles apologising to residents of the Somerset Levels for having made the mistake of listening to the experts.

          So in public debate (not in debate among scientists) I think it is important that someone makes a reasonably clear, simple and vivid case that alternatives exist and the prevailing ‘dig and dredge’ approach is not always the best one. And I applaud Monbiot for trying.

    2. A really great comment.

      I’ve been quite taken aback by the sheer stupidity of some of the comments made by Tim Farron, particularly when he tweeted: ‘the increase in flooding correlates with the decline in upland farming. But I suppose that’s just coincidence?’. I mean where do you start with that one???

      I see Ms Truss has set up the ‘The Cumbrian Floods Partnership Group’. Good idea I thought to myself, until I then read: ‘The group will be chaired by the floods minister, Rory Stewart, and will consist of community flood defence groups, the Environment Agency and local authorities’.

      The alarm bells are ringing already.

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