More rain and tidal surges have meant that it has been another traumatic weekend for people in the West Country, and parts of Wales.  February started where the wettest January for 100 years left off, and more rain is forecast for this week. The crisis in the Somerset Levels - and let's not forget other parts of the country also affected by floods - will continue until the water ebbs, but it is increasingly clear that the story must not end there.

While no-one can say for sure that these particular floods are caused by climate change, milder, wetter winters have been predicted for some time (see here) and the frequency of extreme weather events is increasing.  The risk of flooding is here to stay. This knowledge should guide future investment in flood risk management (there is no bottomless pit of public money as Professor Dieter Helm pointed out this weekend see here) and should influence the type of farming and land use we (and wildlife) need in the future.

Because how we manage the land can have a bearing on flooding (although the evidence of impacts is uncertain at the catchment scale - see here).   The type of land management we have today might not be possible or desirable in the future.  Get it right and land management can slow and store floodwaters.  Get it wrong, and land management can contribute to floods by increasing run-off or silting rivers.

So, while those on the Somerset Levels and Defra develop their action plan (to which we are contributing - see here), we need to debate the role of land management and payments through the Common Agriculture Policy in preventing and managing floods in the future.

How could the CAP help? Let's look at five key principles of a sustainable flood management strategy...

...Focus flood defence resources on protecting lives, homes, businesses and utilities: this is the Environment Agency's job and I would argue that their strategy is working; most of the areas saved have been communities and major infrastructure and most of the areas flooded have been floodplain farmland (obviously this doesn't take away the trauma if your house or business is in that flooded floodplain farmland...)

...slow the water flow upstream to reduce peak floods: land use policy has a role to play here

...use the existing water management infrastructure better by spreading flood water more appropriately when it reaches the floodplain: land use and drainage policies are important here greater resilience in the floodplain land uses, especially in farming: land use policies are obviously important here

...maintain critical watercourses to ensure appropriate levels of drainage: this one is back in the hands of the authorities

So, imagine we had a brilliant and sustainable flood management strategy constructed around the five principles above. Three of them would depend, wholly or in part, on changes to land use policy to help our countryside become more resilient to flooding. What could those changes look like?

This isn't an idle question. Over the next seven years, £15 billion of tax-payers money will be distributed to farmers and land managers in England.  About £3 billion (not enough, but we've lost that particular battle - see here) will be spent supporting environmentally sensitive farming. Surely that big chunk of public money should be doing something towards managing how water flows through the countryside, and whether homes and businesses are ruined by uncontrollable flooding.

Defra have two options: they can place the tougher conditions on direct payments and they can reward those that nurture the free services that nature gives us.

Option 1 - tougher conditions on direct farm subsidies

Last week WWF suggested that in return for receiving £12 billion of subsidies, farmers and land managers should be obliged to put in place measures that could prevent flooding.  While existing rules do place some conditions on payments made, they are poorly enforced and there are loopholes. When it comes to flooding, the quality of soil is crucial.  Compacted soils and inappropriate drainage lead to much faster water flow at times of heavy rain and soil erosion silts up rivers. Growing crops like maize close to water courses, heavily stocking fields or cultivating very steep slopes cause and exacerbate these problems.

Defra could toughen (and improve enforcement of) the rules and close the loopholes.   Maize farming, for example, is not subject to the same rules on soil management despite the fact that maize is deemed a 'high risk' crop for both soil compaction and erosion. Research indicates that c50% of the sediment (the sediment that people want to dredge) transported by the river Culm in Devon and the river Tone in Somerset over winter could be the result of erosion from maize fields.

So Defra should impose some common sense conditions which protect soils by limiting cultivation on very steep slopes; by obliging farmers to plough across the gradient of sloping fields (rather than up and down, which increases water flow speeds); by providing uncultivated buffer strips by watercourses of sufficient width and impose robust soil management plans.

The 2013 CAP reform also introduced new ‘greening’ requirements attached to a proportion of Pillar I payments. Although greatly watered down during negotiations, the permanent pasture protection measure has potential to contribute to flood risk mitigation.  Member States have the option to designate areas of environmentally sensitive pastures, effectively subject to a ‘no-plough’ rule. This measure could, if targeted at river catchment areas where there is a high risk of conversion from pasture to arable, be an extremely cost-effective way of contributing to more flood resilient landscapes as well as improving water quality with spin-off benefits for wildlife as well.

Option 2 - rewarding farmers for nurturing nature's free services

I am torn on this one.  We know that there is already a gap between government ambitions for protecting and restoring biodiversity in England and available resources especially through agri-environment schemes.  We want the majority of money available to help recover the 60% of farmland wildlife that is declining.

But it is clear that well-designed agri-environment schemes can reduce damage from flooding, by making farms more resilient to floodwaters and controlling which parts of a landscape receive and store floodwaters. Measures might include...

....maintenance of semi-natural grasslands and extensive grazing. This management is much less vulnerable to flooding, and reduces levels of soil erosion and compaction.

...creation of wetlands that store water on the flood plain, creating extra capacity and reducing the risk to property elsewhere in the area.

...targeted support for managed realignment, especially after the initial creation works. Realignment sites such as Medmerry (see here) – which defended 350 homes from flooding this month – buffer storm surges extremely effectively.

...restoration of upland blanket bog and other peatlands. The run-off that can cause flash-flooding is significantly slowed when uneconomic drains are blocked and the habitat is restored.

...funding river restoration projects, can store and slow floodwaters while also benefiting people and wildlife.

Decisions about new rules on farm payments and design of schemes are being made now.  We shall do what we can so that we learn lessons from the existing floods and tax payers' money helps to deliver more sustainable land management in the future.   Just like the dredging debate, CAP doesn't hold all the answers. But it does hold some of them.

What else do you think Defra should be doing to support the land management we want and need in the future?

It would be great to hear your views.

Image: lapwings on winter flooded grazing land close to Ham Wall RSPB reserve (David Kjaer:

  • Re Maize being bad for erosion and sediment creation when grown on sloping land. It is being grown for biomass energy - to save the environment! Maybe it should not be used for biomass.

    What are your thoughts on the value to birds of short rotation willow coppice for biomass.

    I heard a Farming Today on BBC talking about Severn Trent Water growing biomass maize on floodplain land that had been polluted by sewerage farm residue (which contains metals etc) and was thus  unfit for food production. They have a biomass plant which I presume is relying on the product now, but it is a pity they did not look at short rotation willow coppice.  

    I have looked on line and I cannot find any refs to its use in parts of the country which coincides with the range of Nightingales. It must be like a dense coppice that nightingales favour.  I think the RSPB conservation review 2 has an article saying that the Nightingales liked a high density of coppice stools which is sadly lacking these days as the stools die out and are not replanted.

  • This seems a lot more constructive than some of the things we are reading in the press.

    To what extent is arable farming in the levels the product of CAP subsidies?

  • Thanks for your comments, chaps.  The day ends with some good news: consensus emerging about a new future for the Somerset Levels - see

  • Martin,

    I see that the Mail today has accused the EA,NE and the RSPB (presumably working together) of spending more on bird reserves in Somerset and failing to dredge. I do wonder how you get the message across that NGO's are properly involved in management here.

    These comments are only going to get worse as the election gets closer and the media and politicians want someone to blame.

  • the effectively unconditional single farm payment is a massive dead weight in all this - you have to buy it out before you can do anything else and it has been a huge disincentive against land use change which in its absence would make good sense. Nowhere is that more the case than in the Somerset levels, which have had a very interesting agricultural progression: from the bitter disputes of the 70s & 80s as farmers drained harder to try and grow arable crops, to the current realisation that the land isn't up to it (regardless of flooding) and a retreat back towards livestock. At the same time, the opposition to conservation/agri-environment has gradually shifted towards increasing interest in agri-environment payments: suddenly, being inside the SSSI is the route to the HLS schemes that tip the balance towards profit in this very fragile agricultural economy. Surely the answer is to develop quite new approaches to less intensive farming that deploy the money best for everyone, giving viable incomes to farmers, and optimising the use of the land for slowing and holding water ? - rather than yet again trying to tweak and manipulate systems that don't work.

    Bear in mind it is not all about the uplands: in a catchment like the Severn, slowing the flow with wetlands and woodland - which is even more effective because of the friction the trees create - is likely to be more effective in dropping the killer peak flows than action at the top of the catchment.

    And on the money ? Whatever Dieter helm may say, the reality is we have to protect our cities - and everyone seems to have forgotten the Foresight flooding study which predicte3d bills of up to £40 Billion/annum on worst case scenario ! Spend (and think ) now, save later !