Floods and land use

Although dominated by talk of whether the flood defences were expensive enough, high enough, built quickly enough or in the right places, there has been more discussion than usual about the role of land use and flooding in the media and on this blog.


In case you missed them, here is a list of interesting articles:

7 December, George Monbiot, Do little, hide the evidence: the official neglect that caused these deadly floods

10 December, This blog, Defra drowning not waving

29 December, This blog, I will lift up my eyes unto the hills

29 December, George Monbiot, Guardian, This flood was not only foretold – it was publicly subsidised

30 December, Financial Times, Call to close grouse moors to prevent flooding with this interesting quote from the Climate Change Committee ‘For too long landowners have been left to their own devices. We have to recognise there are some powerful vested interests involved. We have to decide what uplands are for in the context of climate change: grouse moors and marginal farmland or slowing down water.

31 December, BBC news online, Storm Frank: what have we done to make the flooding worse?

3 January, Independent on Sunday, UK flooding: How a town in Yorkshire worked with nature to stay dry

The realisation is widespread amongst scientists and academics that upland land use has to change – all we need is for policy makers to catch on too. Tackling upland agriculture is more difficult than the hobby of grouse shooting. Sign this e-petition to ban driven grouse shooting.


20 Replies to “Floods and land use”

  1. This was exactly the discussion a few of us were having in the pub last eve (we’re in the middle of grouse country btw). None of the others read your blog (yet) but had noticed in the media that for once in relation to flooding land use was being discussed. 3 of the group worked in media and one in marketing so whether it was an unfair representation of the general population with regard to noticing such things I know not. Inglorious was also discussed (you will be glad to hear) and my copy will be passed on shortly (you will be not as glad to hear!).

    Could this current media coverage be the start of a move towards a more holistic approach to landscape management by explaining to the general public that it’s not just about dredging and higher flood defences (both very expensive)? Personally I doubt it but then I tend to be a negative bugger. But here’s to hoping.

    Happy new year Mark n all that.

    1. Martin

      I have wondered whether the dreadful floods experienced in northern England will sound the death knell for certain upland land management. Policy makers will have noted the wider media and all other sources. The evidence is building.

      In my view, it won’t be the loss of hen harriers that will do for grouse moors; most folk won’t care as there presence or not has no meaning in their daily lives. However, as soon as the link is made between upland management and why they are bailing out their homes, businesses or leisure facilities then they will care; in their thousands. And Government cannot ignore that. Floods are not fussy if they damage Conservative, Labour or Lib Dem voters’ homes. That is why, I think, there has been subtle changes in comments from Rory Stewart & Tim Farron. Their constituencies and their voters have suffered significant and dreadful damage from these floods…and everyone is now turning their eyes up hill…

  2. Many academics, including Hoskins, Rackham and more recently Marc Antrop, have more than subtlely spoken of the need for further research into historic landscape features. Hedgerows particularly dry stone faced are not just boundary features but were clearly built as very clever and effective water management systems. The UK landscape is a worthy study area for the rest of the world and yet ignored by its own politicians, ngos and commentators who use the floods as an excuse to spout any old self serving nonsense. It is heartening to see some commentary (about Pickering), which has developed modern, cheap defences – it is surely time to look also at the many places where traditional features are still working effectively and rather than seek knee jerk planting projects which will take immense time and are unlikely to succeed due to the soil issues, we should be developing a less misanthropic good practice guide, which would still be of immense benefit to wildlife due to the increase in surface areas (a linear metre of Devonian and Cornish dry stone hedge has a surface area of 2.8m2 – nit including the phyllosphere).

  3. It is encouraging to see these ideas being at least discussed in the press and a recognition that concrete walls are not the only or even the best way of managing flood water. We shall have to wait and see what changes, if any, emerge in the way we manage catchments.
    Yesterday the head of the Environment Agency was reported as saying that, in relation to flood defense, the EA will always prioritise people over wildlife. Although few would argue that protecting human life is not a priority and most would agree that it is also a priority to stop people’s homes being repeatedly flooded and ruined, the problem with that lies in the detail of how it is interpreted. Although, to be fair, Sir James Bevan did stress that it was not just about building flood walls but also about managing catchments to slow the flow of water down into the valleys I expect his words will be seized upon and used to press for ever higher and harder flood defenses. The idea that this process will always trump wildlife concerns is a very depressing one.

  4. I hope you don’t mind me contributing. The two big issues in our locality, and I suspect elsewhere, is the use of flood projections and the impact of the development on the area. We are under threat of a 30% increase in housing from 3 separate developments. Some of the land is a flood area on one proposed area but plans involve housing up a hill above it.
    The developers legally only have to mitigate the effects of their development. So the load of 3 developments is not taken into account. Also we are further upstream than the badly affected Yalding. The impact on them would be significant buy is not a planning factor. The plans only alow for 50 year projection. The existing 100 year projection was exceeded last year!
    As others have said, a more holistic approach is needed. The Environment Agency Chiefs backtracking has not helped though.

  5. This whole problem is hardly new but it will take a flood of biblical proportions to wake up the present shower of politicians (wish that pun was intended).
    In the early 1980’s an organic commune was founded on a 100sqkm ranch in central Oregon. The ranch was previously called, with reason, The Big Muddy. This area is semi-desert (dry for most of the year but with seasonal heavy rainfall in the winter) and a history of over-grazing by cattle.
    The new residents immediately started an ongoing project of building small, low impact, wooden check-dams along the streams, built a couple of small reservoirs and many ponds, planted trees and dramatically reduced grazing. It worked.
    Even then this would hardly have been considered innovative. Any child who has messed around with water and puddles will understand the basic principal, slow the water down.
    As George Monbiot says beavers will do this work for free as long as there are trees.
    Maybe we should give our so called ‘leaders’ a pile of mud, water and a bucket and spade and maybe 10 years later they might have figured it out. Just maybe.

  6. Writing an article for Bird Watching magazine a few years ago about the ‘Ings of Yorkshire’ I was amazed when I visited the RSPB reserves around the Dearne Valley to find that 7000 homes had been protected by improving the flooding of the Ings. When you see ‘make a home for nature’ splashed on the TV costing the RSPB £1000s why not ‘Save a home for Humans and Nature’! A much cheaper way of making members!!

  7. Few would object to more broadleaves being planted in the hills, especially on stream sides. Sheep and broadleaves can live together with good fencing.

    The problem is that the forestry industry are only really keen on coniferisation. To get sitka etc to grow you have to plough the fragile peaty soil which leads to greater water and sediment run off. Things get better when the canopy closes which can take ten years.

    The trees are felled at about year 40 and the mess made by the tree harvesting machine has to be seen to be believed. The damage causes the peat to dry out all over again and the increased water run off is repeated.

    Planting proposal by Buccleuch Estate not far from Langholm.


  8. It is now nearly 15 years since the Forestry Commission launched Wild Ennerdale. 13 years ago FC got LIFE funding to return the headwaters of the Lymington river to its natural channels. More recently the admittedly tiny but nonetheless ground breaking Pickering project got superb publicity from coalition EFRA chair Anne McIntosh MP. In each case the results have been staggering: in the New Forest water rose, spilled over into the trees and slowed down just as we’d been told it would. The ford which a veteran forester told us he had always been able to cross in his van was 2 metres under water. But a top level meeting with between EA and FC in 2006 to explore the potential for working together resulted in a very firm rebuff. In July 2007 I watched the summer storm roll in over London from the top of the Government Office for London on Millbank. It was like nothing I’d seen before in the UK and the damage it did – and far worse it could have done – should have changed everything. And then, in 2010, we entered the loss decade and any chance of progress was swallowed up in mindless cuts. There was no way a nice juicy capital budget like flood defence was going to escape – the only thing that surprised me was that it was only 10%. Now the green crap is washing right up to the doors of number 11. My experience suggests we have the technology and the finance (because we are already spending a lot of the money we need exacerbating the problem) to make very rapid progress to mitigate the risks we face. But do we have the leadership and the skills ? Sir James Bevan’s comment on ‘people before wildlife’ suggest we don’t. As crass politically motivated, factually groundless comments go this surely takes some beating. Where, I’m wondering, is the wildlife going to be threatened ? Integrated land management to tackle the problems can hardly fail to benefit wildlife. Yes, there’ll be some (miniscule) loss of agricultural productivity but the only losers should be the NFU self sufficiency lobby – we can and should embrace the farmers in the firing line into delivering the vital service of flood defence to their urban neighbours. What is quite clear is there is no one silver bullet: it isn’t concrete, it isn’t trees, it isn’t drain blocking or less heather burning: it is all of them in the right mix. The challenge is bringing together disparate cultures ranging from heavy engineering to nature conservation into a cohesive, focussed plan of action and then to deliver it. That is quite simply what is known as leadership. But I fear that all we will get is politics.

  9. Beavers.

    Set them free.

    Lots of them.

    (That’s Beavers. Not to be confused / misspelled with Biebers or Beliebers who would be completely useless, counter-effective and possibly dangerous should they be let loose on our upland forests, only serving to offend the delicate eyes and ears of small mammals, birds etc).

  10. I think what is both encouraging and interesting is that in all of the discussions of this issue I’ve read online somebody has raised the issue of how the management of uplands has exacerbated the problem. In many the finger has been firmly pointed at grouse shooting industry. I very much doubt that this would have been the case without the high profile campaign on the plight of the Hen Harrier and the publicity reviews etc generated by ‘Inglorious’. Unlike the plight of birds, that of those who were flooded out will make politicians sit up and listen. At the very least the ‘moortocracy’will have to explain themselves and their damaging policies.

  11. The IoS article claims that the new scheme prevented a flood in Pickering. According to local weather records there was far less rain over the North York Moors than the areas flooded by Pennine rainfall. While it may well improve things in Pickering it hasn’t had a severe test yet – and a handful of months after planting as much as 29ha of new woodland seems a tad soon to be declaring its success. Time will tell.

    The IoS article also compares the success of the Bossington scheme to the disastrous flooding of the Somerset Moors and Levels in 2013/4. Despite the Aller and Horner Water being spate rivers in a completely separate catchment on the other side of the Quatnocks to the enclosed flood basin of the SM&L where pumping is required to remove flood water from the flood reserves to the high level carrier rivers. This has to be done whatever speed the water arrives at. Then it goes on to extol the expertise of the Dutch in dealing with water passing through their country – notorious for its spate rivers and steeply sloping uplands. They have been busy widening and straightening their rivers, lowering the floodplain levels and re-locating farmers since the mid-90s. Experts at the Rijkswaterstaat “Room for the River” project dismiss the idea of dredging or flood defence maintenance being neglected and says that the UK should look closely at where it has gone wrong this year.

    If this was the IoS hack trying to make a point – what point was it, exactly?

    1. Filbert – I haven’t thanked you for your comments for ages. Happy New Year and thank you!

  12. Filbert makes some important points: yes, it is too early to judge the effectiveness of Pickering – its it’s existence that is probably more important than anything else. And, yes, the Somerset levels are really a red herring: they are very low (below sea level in places) and are a sump not a catchment. And for a lot of flooding – the Severn and the Thames for example its mid-catchment, ie the lower, flatter flood plain, as on the Lymington river, that is probably more critical. However, for Hebden Bridge and Leeds, where the water is coming straight off the hills with no flood plain to contain the peak flow there is a clear connection to the uplands. But the central message is surely that each situation is different – and there is action that needs to be taken from the top of the highest hills right to the point where the water flows through where people live.

    1. That is indeed the message from the Netherlands, where they know how to do stuff and failure is not an option. They use what limited natural features they have left, create more where they can, dredging and pumping and infrastructure maintenance are continuous, and they make sure action continues beyond the point where people live so the water from the rest of Europe ends up in the Noordsee and not in the eetkamer. They have Leaders that get things done. They don’t wave their hands around and claim everything is unprecedented. They know what to expect from centuries of experience and they add to that some top-up to deal with future projections. A word search of the 21MB of their Flood Risk and Water Management in the Netherlands 2012 update for “rewilding”, “managed retreat” and “snorkel” will fail to find any instances of the search item.

      The Dutch approach is to be thorough, cover as many predictable angles as possible and to act on them. They don’t have to deal with short spate rivers. We do, and they have always flooded from time to time. Short of moving townships like Cockermouth and Lynton somewhere else – they are likely to flood however many sheep are not on the hills or however many trees are or are not planted or ruthlessly grubbed out or how many houses are not built on their flood plains – if they have flood plains. I’ve never noticed them at Lynton or Boscastle. Presumably the penny will eventually drop and “They” will realise that one size does not fit all and that some bespoke tailoring of solutions is required and that this will not be cheap – given that much of the lowlands lie over slowly permeable soils which have also become badly compacted and in many areas effective drainage systems are no longer maintained. Soils at saturation have no more water-holding capacity – the sponge model does apply in certain confined circumstances.

      I’m off to see the Avon slowly and inexorably rising around Churchill Park as the Chalk slowly and inexorably drains down into the Nadder and the Wylye and the Avon and the Bourne and the Harnham water meadows do their work and the A36 doesn’t quite flood and the local planners wonder what they should decide about the proposed Britford housing development. Splish splash!

  13. Pete – No need for ploughing as the trees will take up the water and wind blow will open up the ‘Iron Pan’ I had a brilliant Birch only yesterday showing the full effect of non ploughing leaving an amazing root plate and solid rock underneath. This was a tree planted in 1983 on Geltsdale in wet conditions with no tubes. The whole planting was planted with a wind break of Larch, Sycamore and Scots Pine from the west and with Birch, Rowan and Willow in the centre with Oak and Beech for the East wind. The map at Langholm shows no real care for water catchment areas with little space left for streams to have any sign of open areas once the spruce have closed in. A wider use of Scots Pine would be better as these could be long term trees not just the 30 – 40 years like the spruce. Birds not mentioned for loss of the area are Snipe and Curlew!

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