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Money’s no object – to creating floods

United Kingdom
Grouse on moor

Skewed priorities: ‘environmental stewardship’ has resulted in moorlands ideal for rearing and shooting grouse. Milesmilob under a Creative Commons Licence

‘Money’s no object’ when it comes to mopping up floods, British Prime Minister David Cameron proclaimed. It seems that money’s no object when it comes to creating floods either – especially when it’s public money falling into the pockets of rich landowners.

The government’s environmental advisory body Natural England (NE) uses taxpayers’ money to pay large land owners to manage estates in an environmentally sensitive manner. Unfortunately, ‘environmental stewardship’ has, in some cases, meant the burning and draining of protected bogs rich in sphagnum moss, to create heather moorlands ideal for rearing and shooting grouse. This is despite ample evidence that burning and draining harms water quality and wildlife, while increasing the risk of flooding.

Recent research has confirmed that healthy blanket bog sucks up water, whereas dry, burnt bog is far less absorbent and increases run-off causing water to rush downhill into rivers and road drains. Blanket bog is precious for a number of reasons – it is a globally rare habitat that acts as a biodiverse carbon sink – but right now, flooding is the big story.

In 2012, the northern town of Hebden Bridge flooded. I reported that local campaigners considered Natural England and millionaire estate owners to be the potential culprits. George Monbiot has, in the last week, pointed to land (mis)management being responsible for this winter’s floods in Somerset. It’s becoming apparent that the way we interfere with soil and vegetation affects how much water ends up in our lanes and lounges – it is not all about weird weather, nor is the uber-demon of climate change solely responsible.

The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) complained to the European Commission about unlawful land management practices, undertaken in the name of environmental stewardship. Natural England, implicated in this mismanagement, conducted its own Upland Review – and conceded that bog burning was not the best idea; but under pressure from stakeholders operating from a position of power and privilege NE has struggled to implement best practice in the uplands.

Leeds University’s hydrological research (2012) suggested that deliberate burning of peat blocks the soil’s pores, impeding infiltration of water into the soil. When working to restore peat bog on Exmoor, South West Water discovered that the amount of flood water running off the moorland had reduced by a third compared with pre-restoration run-off. According to researchers at the University of Exeter, that reduction is the equivalent of  ‘104 Olympic-sized swimming pools of water removed from the river system flowing down to major population centres’.

This month University of Exeter Professor Richard Brazier said ‘This enhanced water storage could, when replicated [...] provide a significant buffer against downstream flooding.’ With swathes of the south under water, and the country demanding something be done about flooding, this is exciting stuff.

Natural England has recently put out a draft guidance document relating to the restoration of peatlands. This document concludes that burning blanket bog has negative impacts and should be phased out. Hallelujah!

But wait... the Hebden Bridge flood victims are not yet mollified.

‘We think of Natural England as an ally, not an enemy, and we hope they’re going to help create a safer environment for those of us living in valleys and near flood plains,’ says Ban The Burn supporter Penny Eastwood. ‘Having said that, we think this draft is a bit toothless. It doesn’t convey the urgency of restoring our uplands. It doesn’t speak to people with flooded homes, devastated businesses and hiked-up insurance. We need this bog degradation to be banned, and we need taxpayers’ money to be spent on protecting the public, rather than being squandered on environmentally hazardous practices’.

Are Natural England’s hands tied? Their draft refers to partners with whom they’ll need to work out a process to reduce bog-degrading activities. The language is woolly, the stance not exactly robust. Home owners and taxpayers would like to know exactly when and how payments to ‘stewards’ who harm vital uplands will cease. If our government’s advisory body is stuck between vested interests and the hard facts of environmental and climate realities, there may yet be work for tenacious grassroots groups to do.

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