Money’s no object – to creating floods

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.

The one man peace mission


On 23 October 2012, a British-Iranian known as ‘Earthian’ sent a cryptic message to his friends: ‘I have set up camp beside the cliffs of Dover. I have given up my British passport. I am on my way to the centre of the earth in Iraq.’

Prior to this, Earthian had spent several months camping in London’s parks. Sometimes he pulled a handcart equipped with tent and solar panel; sometimes he cycled, towing a heavy trailer. Exercise books filled with dense handwritten notes contained his observations, plans and dreams.

Earthian was plotting and testing himself for his mission, a ‘zero-money, zero-carbon walk for peace’, based on the premise that national borders cause unnecessary division and suffering, a resource-based economy should replace our sick monetary version, and that responsibility for the environment is everyone’s business. ‘My main purpose on this journey is to achieve peace in the Middle East,’ he explained from Dover.

It seemed unlikely he would make it as far as France, and yet, little more than a month later, Earthian is in Sulaymaniyeh in Northern Iraq. 

Though he describes his journey as a ‘peace walk’, Earthian is pragmatic; he hitch-hikes and uses public transport when possible. He walked approximately 500 kilometres of the 5,000 kilometres from London to Iraq; finding free rides became easier the further east he travelled.

On one occasion an un-requested gift of €100 ($130) enabled him to take a train out of Hungary after he was arrested for carrying no identification (the British Embassy had to provide proof of citizenship to secure his release). At the Turkish border he was stymied by the need for a visa, but swiftly raised €20 ($26) in donations from truck drivers. Few can resist Earthian’s earnest conviction.

Forty years ago, a boy named Kauomarth Valadbagi, from a moderately leftwing family, was growing up in an Iranian village. He studied hard and wanted to go to university, but being a political undesirable – as a young man he actively supported Komalah, a regional Kurdish party – the opportunity was denied him. During the Iran-Iraq war he was called up for military service. Kauomarth was a pacifist and didn’t want to die, so he disappeared, made a new identity for himself, moved around Iran doing casual work and kept his head down. The dream of going to university never went away and, combined with a desire to live freely, compelled Kauomarth to escape across the border into Iraq and then to Turkey. For two years he travelled through Europe, surviving on little, working in the black economy. In 1997 he arrived in Britain, adopted a new name and was granted asylum based on the likelihood of persecution in Iran due to his political beliefs.

He became a British citizen, went to university and worked first as an  engineer, then in IT. He got married and got a mortgage. Then, the global economic crisis hit. ‘I tried to somehow convince myself to carry on, but I couldn’t... I lost my relationship and my house... I decided I’ll never again be part of a system which uses people like modern slaves until we have no energy and become only tools in the system.’

Soul-searching led to the realization that, torn between his Iranian upbringing and British citizenship, neither of which had worked out well, it was time to opt in to something new. Choosing his fourth name, Earthian, he rejected national borders and divisions. The Occupy movement in London gave Earthian a home, like-minded peers and a launch pad for his peace mission; a mission to end suffering and environmental destruction, to change the world one person at a time through discussion and example.

Earthian is currently waiting for a response from the governor of Sulaymaniyeh, having requested permission to set up a prominent camp from which to talk to people about his journey for one month. He intends to visit Gaza, though locals have begged him not to go via Baghdad, as the risk of kidnap is high. He has been interviewed by Gali Kurdistan Television, and a teenager from Faloja named Ali is spreading word about the baffling peace campaigner he found inhabiting a tent beneath the Khasrow Khal bridge.

Kauomarth’s father died some years ago but his mother is alive and lives just four hours from Sulaymaniyeh, in Western Iran. Earthian cannot enter Iran but is hoping someone will bring his mum to visit him and that, courtesy of the governor of Sulaymaniyeh, they can be reunited in an Occupy peace camp in one of the city’s parks.

Find out more at Earthian’s blog.

Photo of Earthian at the Occupy London camp, by Ben Cavanna/Occupy.

Who's messing with Hebden Bridge's vital flood barrier?

flooding in Hebden Bridge‘Town that won't stop flooding: Hebden Bridge cleans up for the third time in three weeks.’

That was a Daily Mail headline in July. It was a slight exaggeration. Most people who live in Hebden Bridge (West Yorkshire) are pretty sure they were only flooded twice, but it was enough. Cars were submerged, the library was evacuated, the main road closed, businesses were wrecked, homes swamped, livelihoods devastated.

But an interesting new story is emerging, which has some bearing on the flood-prone streets of Hebden. It involves a millionaire landowner, a government minister, environmental breaches at a site of special scientific interest (SSSI), a mysteriously dropped court case, the profitability of shooting grouse, and the spending of taxpayers’ cash. The setting: the wuthering heights above Hebden Bridge, famed moors of the Brontës. The unlikely heroes of the piece are blanket bog and sphagnum moss.

On 12 August, flood-hit residents of Hebden Bridge and campaigners from across the country set out from the town centre on a protest walk to the Walshaw Moor grouse-shooting estate. Following the walk, the Ban the Burn! national campaign launch, timed to coincide with ‘The Glorious Twelfth’ (the opening of the grouse-shooting season), took place at Hebden Bridge Trades Club. Ban the Burn! campaigners are calling for an end to the draining of peat-rich blanket bogs and the burning of moorland heather, activities carried out by landowners to maximize grouse-shooting potential.

The effects of draining and burning of blanket bogs, which are supposed to be protected under EU and UK conservation regulations, include: increased flood risk downstream; very significant carbon emissions; adverse impacts on water quality; and the destruction of rare and globally significant habitat. According to the Commission of Inquiry on Peatlands, damaged UK peatlands currently release almost 3.7 million tonnes of CO2 a year – more than all the households in Edinburgh, Cardiff and Leeds combined.

Walshaw Moor came to public attention when Natural England attempted to prosecute the landowner for 43 environmental breaches. The case was abruptly dropped and Natural England subsequently entered into an Environmental Stewardship agreement with the Estate, whereby £2.5 million ($3.9 million) of taxpayers’ money will be paid to it over the next 10 years while ‘controlled’ burning will still be allowed. Campaigners described this as a scandal in a YouTube video.

According to a local resident, ‘here in Hebden Bridge we know the real hardship of flooding – shops and businesses in our town are still shut, and many of us have suffered irreplaceable loss. We need to manage the upland catchment to promote healthy blanket bog, with sphagnum moss to act as a sponge during heavy rainfall. It seems grotesque that the taxpayer is paying for the exact opposite – £2.5 million is about five times as much as we have in the Calder Valley flood recovery fund!’

At the end of a ‘brilliant’, ‘eye-opening’ and ‘exhausting’ day, a walker explained via the live EnergyRoyd blog why he joined the Ban the Burn! campaign: ‘I think it’s a travesty that Walshaw Moor Estate has been given public money. They’ve got friends in Whitehall, and the Minister for Wildlife’s a grouse shooter – basically, a bunch of aristocrats are making life worse for hard-working folk in the valley by increasing the risk of flooding.’ Parts of this claim are unsubstantiated; however, suggestions regarding the influence of political and land-owning élites on environmental and countryside policies have been made by Dr Mark Avery (former Conservation Director of the RSPB), George Monbiot (in The Guardian) and Michael McCarthy (The Independent).

Dr Avery says in his blog Standing up for Nature: ‘The access of the Moorland Association to the [Wildlife] Minister is at a level that many statutory agencies who work for Defra might well envy, and is well beyond that of the average environmental NGO.’ Edward Bromet, Chair of the Moorland Association, which supports grouse shooting, sent Wildlife Minister Richard Benyon a private email in December 2011. The content of this email has since been made public under a Freedom of Information request. Bromet, referring to the court case brought by Natural England against Walshaw Moor Estate, wrote: ‘What Natural England are doing is complete madness...  Suggestions of readdressing the basis of existing agri-environment schemes... would make the management of moorland, most of which is privately funded, completely impossible.’ How much influence such communications had on Natural England’s decision to drop the case is unknown.

When it comes to environmental degradation by a politically untouchable élite of large landowners, the Hebden Bridge story may be just the tip of an iceberg. Walshaw Moor is certainly not an isolated case – the Peatlands Inquiry found that only 11 per cent of blanket bogs in English SSSIs are in favourable condition. Primary reasons cited for unfavourable (no change or declining) condition are overgrazing, inappropriate moor burning and drainage – the latter two being associated with grouse moors.

Emma Fordham writes for the Occupied Times.

Photo of Hebden Bridge by Steven Lilley under a CC Licence.