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Money’s no object – to creating floods

Grouse on moor [Related Image]
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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  1. #1 Steven Whitestaple 22 Feb 14

    Excellent article and I agree that the bog saturation levels may have a link to the recent flooding but this winter has seen unprecedented rain fall.

    Is there any evidence to suggest that the flooding would not have happened at all if the bogs were protected as suggested? Or, is it a combination of bad bogging and plentiful rain?

  2. #2 Emma 12 Mar 14

    Sorry it took me so long to see this and get back to you, Steven.

    I think the flooding of this year has numerous causes, countryside mismanagement being just one. It's the combination of, as you say 'bad bogging' and heavy rainfall that's really going to do us in. What's worrying is that, as climate change makes itself increasingly apparent through extreme weather events, we need to be making our landscape MORE resilient, not less so. Plus, of course, the blanket bog is a carbon sink when healthy; and releases carbon when burnt.

    There are so many reasons why our taxes shouldn't be going to line the pockets of grouse estate owners; and yet today I received an email from a friend who, while walking on 'the tops' on this beautiful spring day, was aghast to see the moors burning again...


    I can well believe your point about sphagnum moss.It makes a wonderful soft and springy under-groundsheet mattress too! :-)

    But I feel a further idea should be discussed: sheep and rabbits on moorland are there by a total warped eco-system. Foxes and predatory birds have been wiped out on moors to protect what is a very poor income for farmers ( ie free-grazing sheep ). So many sheep die from cold or are simply stolen that the case for having sheep there at all is tiny. Of course rabbits, a natural food for foxes and predatory birds ’breed like rabbits’ which eat any emerging tree or shrub dowe to the root and kills it. Also clears any such plants which are not food-worthy merely as a means of having burrow-surrounds clear to see and hear predators ( of which there are none. ) The sheep also eat right down to the root of everything remotely green, destroying almost every plant before it can grow and seed.
    In short. the moors need to return to their former selves which originally supported , as can be observed in the islands in Scottish lochs ( and in old drawings and paintings ) but not necessarily in the surroundings... a wealth of deciduous and evergreen shrubs and small trees and of course wild flowers. The eco-system they generate is far more powerful in water absorption and transpiration than even sphagnum moss.
    Such an environment of course is not conducive to land owners who wish to nest ONLY grouse and have a clear shot on these very slow moving birds where more cover would be in its interest as a species.

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