I will lift up my eyes unto the hills…


‘I will lift up my eyes unto the hills from whence cometh my floods’

As the Moorland Association brags, 70% of the UK’s drinking water comes from the uplands – so do 70% of the UK’s floods, for water has the habit of flowing downhill.  The River Ouse flowing through York, or over York, is fed by the rivers Derwent (draining the North York Moors), Aire (starting at Malham Tarn), Don (draining the Peak District), Wharfe (guess what – Wharfedale), Nidd (Nidderdale), Swale (Swaledale) and Ure (Wensleydale).

It goes without saying that the faster water gets off the hills the quicker it gets into rivers and the higher the peak flows of those rivers will be – and it is the peak flows that cause floods. the same amount of water, spread over a longer period of time, is far less of a problem.  It’s like human traffic flows – if all those people came into work spread through the day then there wouldn’t be a rush hour.

Intensive grouse moor management dries out the hills in order to create a heather monoculture to favour Red Grouse at the expense of anything else; anything else such as Black Grouse, blanket bog or flood risk reduction.

No, of course driven grouse shooting is not ‘the’ cause of flooding across northern England – there are many contributory factors, but unsustainable management of our hills (where 70% of rain falls) is certainly a major factor which deserves much more attention from decision-makers. And every little harms in this case – for the peak flows are the problem and so a few inches reduction of peak flows might wipe millions of pounds off the costs of floods, which I see are now ‘guesstimated’ at over £5bn.  Let’s just repeat the conjecture of yesterday – if grouse moor mismanagement is only responsible for 1% of the problem (a ludicrously generous position for me to take) then that is £50m worth of damage for a rich man’s pointless sport.  Given that the water damaging York this week came from many grouse moors in the Yorkshire Dales and North York Moors the 1% figure is almost certainly on the low side.

What is the mismanagement of grouse moors that exacerbates flooding? Destruction of blanket bogs is one factor and the RSPB complaint to the EU over Walshaw Moor and Natural England’s consents for intensive burning of heather moorlands across northern England is still limping along. If Defra had taken action on over-burning back in 2012 or earlier then we might be seeing less of a problem now. But they didn’t – read the story in Inglorious Chapters 4 and 5 and keep following this blog in 2016.

I heard yesterday that the bookshop in Hebden Bridge that sold copies of Inglorious at my talk there back in October is flooded, uninsured (because it is uninsurable because of the risk of flooding) and has lost 70% of its stock.  It’s not clear whether millionaire grouse moor owner, Richard Bannister up the hill on Walshaw Moor, is partly to blame for this, or completely blameless, but we do know in general that the type of management that provides large numbers of chicken-like birds for the rich to shoot for fun, is the type of management that makes floods more likely and destroys businesses and ruins people’s homes. We know this. We’ve known it for quite a while.

But we still, in politics and in the media, concentrate on talking about whether enough money was spent on flood defences, which always means walls and barriers. Hills that are well managed are flood defences too. And they are the type of flood defences that northern England badly needed over the last few weeks. But the grouse moor managers won’t give us them unless they are forced to do so.

So ‘lift your eyes up unto the hills’ whence the floods come, and where the rich men live dry and cosy and unbothered by the downstream consequences of a pointless ‘sport’.

Sign here to reduce flood risk.

Website Pin Facebook Twitter Myspace Friendfeed Technorati del.icio.us Digg Google StumbleUpon Premium Responsive


36 Replies to “I will lift up my eyes unto the hills…”

  1. I had a walk round one of the moors on the south side of Swaledale yesterday and was surprised at the damage the recent rains had caused higher up near the top of the moor, which in this case is effectively a very small catchment.We haven’t had especially large amounts of rain (less than 3″ in any one 24 hr period which we would expect at least once a winter anyway) but a lot of stone and turf has been shifted about ie downstream. Also noticed some recently dug drains which won’t help either.

  2. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if 2016 were the year that people finally realised that the MPs that they vote for, and the charities that they support, haven’t got their best interests at heart.
    Sandra made a similar point on yesterday’s blog.
    This year, via this blog, I have asked readers to give me a like if they felt that the RSPB should openly support the banning of lead shot and driven grouse shooting and recieved 35 likes. I also asked the ‘other’ side to give me a good reason not to ban lead. Apart from learning that the poor skint shooters may have to fork out for new barrel sleeves, no answer was given.
    I have written to my MP and received drivel in return. Oh, and a reference to DEFRA.
    I have written to Helen Ghosh of the (our) National Trust and received drivel in return. Oh, and another reference to DEFRA.
    I have also spent many hours trying to inform people that the EU has licensed the use of Diclofenac in Spain, if you like vultures, that should concern you.
    It should also concern you that the MoD still use REAL bear skins (did you know that!).
    That they want to reintroduce fox hunting. That more badgers will be pointlessly executed.
    These people are making decisions against our wishes because we don’t stand up to them and their vested interests.
    And we end the year, not with a flood of votes on two important petitions, but with floods. Floods that bring untold misery and huge expense that, in the end, you will pay for.

    It’s not been all bad. We have Caroline Lucas to show MPs what they should be doing.
    We have Findlay Wilde shining like a beacon to the future. We have AgriProtein in South Africa (look them up) and a young Dutch guy who’s invented a process for cleaning our seas of plastic.
    You can add to this hope by making your feelings felt to everyone you meet, (yes, you too can be as boring as me!) and writing to the people you vote for or pay your subs too.
    And put Inglorious on the nation curriculum.
    A happier New Year to all.

  3. Does not drying out the pear, to encourage heather growth, make it more absorbent, therefore more likely to prevent flooding, rather than causing it?

    1. John – It depends on how dry the peat becomes and the vegetation growing on it. However, in some circumstances at least, dry peat can become hydrophobic and does not absorb water. A good ‘kitchen science’ example is the peat in your plant pot. If this is left to dry too much and you then water it, the water beads on the surface of the peat or flows rapidly through the gap between the peat and the edge of the pot. Dry peat does not always represent an immediately available store for water to fill. Drying of peat also hastens its decomposition; dry peatlands tend to be net losers of carbon (the peat is getting thinner rather than accumulating).

    2. Peat bogs act like a sponge. To drain and keep drained, fast flowing watercourses are created. Obviously, this fills tributaries etc up with more water and much more quickly. Hence more flooding.

    3. Dry peat can develop water repellent properties which take a long time to breakdown, however, burnt peat develops a tar like skin which repels water and can take more than a decade to decay. Burning peat moorlands destroys water retention.

  4. But, of course, we have the benefit of hindsight, so quite unfair to be so critical of our politicians.

    Or do we ? The 2007 summer flood, the result of just one mega cloud burst, cost the economy over £3 billion and was described by the subsequent enquiry as ‘the worst peacetime disaster since the war’, which it probably wasn’t but would have been if the electricity distribution centre for western England had flooded like the fresh water system actually did flood. Prior even to that flood a Government Foresight project has predicted the cost of flooding rising to as much as £40 billion per annum over the next 50 years ! It is quite clear that only a much deeper, integrated approach which combines hard and soft defences can give the protection needed at a reasonable cost – but is it so difficult ? 10 years ago I asked a Vice President of NFU whether his members would ‘farm water’ if they were paid to do it, to which he replied ‘yes, they would’. The current floods look like costing more than a whole year’s CAP subsidy for the whole of farming in the UK – as this blog has advocated so clearly, lets start paying land managers for what matters today, not what mattered in 1947.

  5. To link grouse shooting with the floods smacks of desperation Mark.

    You’re also looking at the wrong end of the dynamic system that a river is. It’s not so much the run-off (although this is a contributing factor and driven by GENERAL poor soil management/protection practice) but it’s the unprecedented waterfall being backed-up due to the development of our flood plains thats the real issue here.

    It’d be a better use of your time campaigning for that habitat lower down the system rather than try and pin any of the flooding on grouse moors (who do, incidentally, give more of a hoot about biodiversity than red grouse mono-cultures than you bizarrely claim).

    You may as well try to pin a bad case of systematic water-poisoning on some poor feckless shot pheasant finding it’s way into a Lancashire water works… oh, hang on.

    1. Jon – I’m not pinning anything on anything. Would you say 1% was a high or low estimate?

      Which bit of the flood plain in the Calder Valley are you blaming exactly? And which bits of development along the River Wyre caused the highest level of warning exactly?

      You’re on the wrong track for excusing grouse moor management – the usual excuse is ‘we’re doing loads of drain blocking and moorland restoration’, not ‘it’s irrelevant’. But neither is true.

  6. How much is the rapid runoff of water caused by mismanagement of the peat (by burning) and how much is it the absence of trees, shrubs (and the deep moss layer that would form under them) in cloughs/gills/ravines around the moorland edges? I have a feeling it is both – but I suspect the latter is a very major factor. Grouse moors are not known for their love of trees as they harbour predators, but this also means we have to look at upland management in a more holistic way – and especially consider the role of grazing sheep.

    1. Excuse me…..our trees in Swaledale do not harbour predators. They have ALL been removed by “management”

  7. Does anybody have a link to a project showing the effects of blockingpeat bogs on flooding. Particularly when the peat bog is full/ saturated?

    1. Peter – There has been some work on this on Exmoor; see: http://www.exeter.ac.uk/news/featurednews/title_355403_en.html. To my knowledge this work has not yet been published in a peer-reviewed journal. As noted in the link, the findings are provisional, and some don’t make immediate sense, such as the suggestion that a wetter peatland can store more water. I think we have to wait to see the details – when published – before commenting further. Certainly, it is possible for a peatland to be wetter after drain blocking yet less responsive to rainfall. In a saturated peatland with blocked drains, water will have to flow over the rough peatland surface to get to the nearest stream or river. In a ditched or gripped peatland there may be some storage space for water, but once this is filled during a rainstorm, water will flow into the nearest ditch (perhaps 5-10 m away) and thence rapidly through the ditch network into the river. Much depends on ditch density and vegetation type, but there are, indeed, circumstances where we can expect ditch blocking to ‘slow the flow’. For more on this, see my comment on one of Mark’s earlier posts at: https://markavery.info/2015/12/10/defra-drowning-not-waving/#comments

      1. But well wetted peat can grow sphagnum which then traps more water (20 x own weight I believe). Hope the Exmoor project continues to look at the longer term effects.

        1. You’ve reminded me of what David Bellamy wrote in an excellent book on Irish peat bogs years ago – the uppermost layer is exposed to wind and sun so can actually dry out very quickly even in a wet climate. Given the amazingly absorbent qualities of Sphagnum, I seem to recall he gave the same figure you did for capacity to hold water, if even a couple of inches at the top are dry(ish) then that could actually capture a hell of a lot of water to slowly drain away or evaporate later on no matter how saturated the underlying peat is. Definitely more research needs to be done on this and the ludicrous statements being made from you know where that it’s all down to rainfall shown to be the deluded rubbish they are.

    1. Mike – not a grouse moor in sight? Oh, that’s OK then.

      Are you saying, against the science on the subject, that land management has no role in flooding? That would be quite a cliam. And if not, are you saying that grouse moor management has no role in flooding? That would be an interesting claim too. So what ate you saying? Maybe you are saying this is a video of a man in the rain – it clearly is. Pretty much proof of…? Of what?

      1. No – I’m not saying any of the things you say in your reply above
        What makes you think that ?

        What i am saying is, that the hills above Rochdale aren’t managed for grouse, they are managed for hill sheep.
        The close cropped vegetation, and thin soils are a much greater flood creator than any grouse moor
        Wheres all the invective come from ?

  8. Seems that MoonbatMonbiot is, as usual, well behind the curve.

    Mark rightly points out that keepers are using the ‘excuse’ that they have been blocking grips for some time now, in fact it’s been going on for many years, I recall Lynsday Waddell telling us about the advantages of doing so for grouse management (lots of lovely invertebrates and cotton grasses) as far back as a field visit in ’93

    It’s certianly true that there was a lot of fresh drainage going on in the seventies and eighties, but that was predominantly connected to grazing and the ridiculous grant schemes in place at the time. Of course if we look back further, the real damage was done in the between and immediate post war years, with both the expansion in forestry and struggle for food security leading to the digging of ditches across upland areas.

    (Ps. Merry Christmas to all)

  9. No particular reason, Just thought it would be nice to drop in given some free time. hope you are well.

  10. Think it’s also worth pointing out how much damage to the water table, drainage and of course nesting birds is being done by wind farms badly sited on peat bogs, such as the ones currently being replaced on Ovenden Moor in Halifax. Also I’m a firm believer that if dry stone walls were kept
    to their original state and if landowners were prevented from over-developing land, selling-off land for development in the uplands this would also help the land do what it needs to do naturally as you say over a slower timescale allowing for natural drainage processes.
    Rewilding although on the whole a good thing will not prevent flooding.
    It’s about land management.

    1. I think its easy to jump to conclusions on wind farms – whilst the actual foundations may disturb the peat, many/most of the ‘roads’ are constructed to float on the surface of the peat, through the use of geotextile matting (and further in the past heather bundles) so their affect on the water table is more limited than it would first appear.

  11. “The often-repeated description of peat as a “sponge” slowly releasing large amounts of
    water to a stream is erroneous; a wet sponge cannot hold much additional water. Even
    intact blanket peat is highly productive of storm runoff very soon after rainfall, and generates little baseflow in out-flowing streams during times of low rainfall. Rainfall input is rapidly followed by a response of rising flow (discharge) in the stream, then an almost equally rapid fall back to a very low base flow level.”

    The Owls are not what they seem



    1. I’m glad Filbert brought this up. There seem to be two issues here. First, there is the assumption that sponges soak up rain water and, only when full, release it slowly. It’s far from clear that sponges really do behave like this. It’s more likely (but we need to check) that they behave like other porous media. Certainly, some sponges are difficult to saturate under natural rainfall rates – water flows through them very rapidly (I know this from experimental work). So sponges may not behave like sponges. Secondly, people often tend to think of peat as being a particular soil type, like ‘podsol’ or ‘brown earth’. Actually, peats are immensely variable and can have properties that range from those seen in gravels to those seen in clays; ‘peat’ is a very broad class of soil types, and it is misleading to attach a particular physical property of one type of peat to all peats.
      The sponge meme seems to have a long history going back at least to the time of Richard Hansford Worth, who, writing in the Transactions of the Devonshire Association in 1930, noted:
      “It is common ground that a large percentage of the available rain flows off in many Dartmoor streams, and that the dry weather flow in extreme droughts is unusually large. It has been sought to connect these ascertained facts directly with the storage capacity of the peat covering the moor. It is alleged that the peat becomes supersaturated in wet weather, and yields up the surplus water as a deferred flow. Experience and experiment both fail to support this suggestion.”

      1. “flow in extreme droughts”

        … would, I posit, be exacerbated by the hydrophobic nature of dry peat. As any gardener kno.

    2. The Gilvear piece is interesting but looks a bit old (can’t find a date) as refers to the 2009 Leeds PhD student study as if it had not started. But good for all the complexity etc it highlights. There is a report published from Leeds University 2014 on“Effects of moorland burning on the ecohydrology of river basins” http://www.wateratleeds.org/ember. Not sure if this is the result & I have not read it in detail.

      1. The Gilvear .ppt was created on 5 January 2011 as is stated in the file properties. The content defines the value irregardless of the date. Isaac Newton died in 1726

Comments are closed.