growing awareness, our government still allows landowners to help flood the homes
of people living downstream.
Monbiot, published in the Guardian 12th February 2020
campaigners in Calderdale, West Yorkshire issued an urgent warning. The peat
bogs in the hills that drain into their valley were burning. The fires had been
set by gamekeepers working for a grouse shooting estate. Burning peatlands, research suggests, is
likely to exacerbate floods downstream. Towns in the Calder Valley, such as
Todmorden, Hebden Bridge and Mytholmroyd have been flooded repeatedly, partly, local people argue, because the upper catchment is able to hold
back little of the rain that falls on it. On Sunday, Storm Ciara landed in the
UK. The River Calder rose higher than it had ever done before, and
Todmorden, Hebden Bridge and Mytholmroyd duly flooded.
day, the UK’s diaphanous environment secretary, Theresa Villiers, made a statement in the
House of Commons expressing her “support and sympathy to all those whose
homes or businesses have been flooded over the weekend.” She assured the house
that “every effort is being made to keep people safe”. But she said nothing
about the land management that might have caused the flood.
Last year, a paper published
in the Journal of Hydrology X reported
experiments conducted in another part of the Pennines, the range in which
Calderdale is located. It found that when peat bogs are restored, deep
vegetation is allowed to recover and erosion gullies are blocked, water is held
back for longer in the hills, and peak flows in the streams draining them are
reduced. Broadly speaking, the rougher the surface, the less flooding downstream.
Burning moorland for grouse shooting reduces roughness and increases erosion.
the government announced that, as
landowners had failed to stop burning their peatlands voluntarily, it would
introduce legislation to ban the practice “in due course”. Since then, there
has been not a squeak. As Villiers dispensed sympathy on Monday, she failed to
long and bizarre history here. The fires recorded by the Calder Valley
campaigners on Friday were burning on Walshaw Moor, a 6500-acre grouse shooting
estate that belongs to the well-connected inheritor of a retail empire, Richard
Bannister. After he bought it, burning and draining on the moor intensified.
Burning and draining raise the abundance of red grouse, while reducing the
abundance of many other species. Shooting grouse is one of the world’s most
exclusive bloodsports: where their numbers are high, very rich people pay
thousands of pounds a day to kill them.
In 2011, the government agency Natural England launched an almost
unprecedented prosecution. It charged the Walshaw Moor estate with 45 offences
relating to its intensification of management for grouse shooting (the estate
denied them). Natural England spent £1 million on the case, then suddenly dropped it. Instead, it channelled £2.5 million of enhanced farm subsidies to the
estate. Freedom of information requests were refused, so we have no means of
understanding this decision. The burning continues, regardless of the warnings
of those downstream. When I phoned Bannister’s office to ask about these
issues, I was told: “We don’t wish to comment.”
Since 2014, when I first wrote about how government policies exacerbate flooding, there has been a major shift in awareness. In and out of government,
there’s a growing realisation that impeding the flow of water off the land,
de-synchronising flood peaks in the tributaries and slowing a river’s pace can
reduce flooding downstream, saving lives, homes and infrastructure. Not every experiment in natural flood management succeeds. The evidence base is still small. More research is needed to discover exactly what works and what
doesn’t. But, in some circumstances, ecological restoration can make a major
difference, at a fraction of the cost of hard engineering.
One paper suggests that reforesting between 20 and 40% of a catchment can reduce the height of floods
by 19%. Leaky wooden dams embedded in streams, and other low-tech measures,
appear to have prevented disasters at Pickering in North Yorkshire and Bossington and Allerford in Somerset. It’s even cheaper if you use non-human labour. Where
beavers are reintroduced, their dams slow the flow and trap sediments.
most parts of the country, the First World War mentality – sustaining the
policy even when it proves disastrous – prevails. In some places, water flows
are controlled by bodies called Internal Drainage Boards. Though these are
official agencies, they don’t appear to be answerable to any government
department. While largely funded by council tax payers, they tend to be
dominated by landowners. Some members appear to have inherited their positions
from their fathers and grandfathers. Many of these boards seem interested only
in speeding water off farmland (including farmland belonging to their members),
regardless of the impact on urban pinchpoints downstream. They dredge,
straighten and embank rivers, trashing wildlife and rushing water towards cities lower in
the catchment. Any government that takes flooding seriously would immediately
dissolve these boards and replace them with accountable bodies.
year, Network Rail spends £200 million on hard engineering to protect its
lines. When I suggested it might pay farmers to invest in natural flood
management in the surrounding hills, it told me, “we are unable to strike deals with farmers or land
owners, to pay for work to be undertaken on 3rd party property”. Shouldn’t
changing this policy be an urgent priority?
Power relations in the British countryside are still almost feudal. Vast tracts of land are owned by small numbers of people, who are permitted to manage it with little regard for the lives and homes of the less elevated people downstream. The environment secretary, a scion of one of Britain’s grandest landed families, offers her thoughts and prayers. I’m sure they are appreciated. But we need action.