Oliver Tickell, editor of The Ecologist, presents a green vision for the Somerset Levels.
IT ALL MADE for a fantastic media drama – striking shots of the inundated Somerset Levels, whole villages under water, wild accusations of Environment Agency incompetence and skullduggery. To the accompaniment of ever-louder cries of “Dredge, dredge dredge!” the “environment brigade” in general have been accused by the right wing tabloids of putting birds and flowers before people flooded out of their homes, wilfully endangering a fragile rural economy.
The truth is rather different. An astonishing consensus has in fact been reached among all the principal parties with interests in the Levels: Somerset County Council, the Somerset District Councils, the Somerset Consortium of Drainage Boards, the Farming and Wildlife Advisory Group, Somerset Wildlife Trust, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, the official wildlife agency Natural England, the Environment Agency and, yes, even the National Farmers Union. Their collaborative Vision 2030 document, agreed at the end of January and published in The Ecologist – its first airing in the entire British media – presents a notably ‘green’ view of how the Somerset Levels and Moors should develop over the next 16 years.
Extensively managed wet grassland dominates the scene, the document envisions. “The floodplains are managed to accommodate winter flooding whilst reducing flood risk elsewhere.” On the low-lying peat moors, water levels have been adopted which conserve peat soils and avoid the loss of carbon to the atmosphere.
The area should become a “world-class haven for wildlife and water fowl. The Levels and Moors are regarded as one of the great natural spectacles in the UK and Europe with a mix of diverse and valuable habitats.” “Previously fragmented habitats such as fen and flower-rich meadows have been re-connected and are widely distributed. In the north of the area over 1,600 hectares are managed as reed-bed, open water and bog … Each winter the wetlands attract large numbers of wintering wildfowl and waders regularly exceeding 130,000 birds. Wetland species such as Crane, Bittern and pollinator populations flourish.” “Optimum use is being made of the agricultural potential of the Levels and Moors, particularly on the higher land, whilst unsustainable farming practices have been adapted or replaced to secure a robust, sustainable base to the local economy.”
That all parties have come together to agree on this view of the future, both progressive and pragmatic, is an astonishing “good news story” amid the very real tales of human woe. Perhaps it is for that very reason that the tabloids have chosen to ignore it. It doesn’t fit their confrontational and simplistic narratives of “birds versus farmers”, or “floods versus people”. It also completely undermines the battle-cry of those media commentators who love to wax lyrical about bungling, uncaring bureaucracies, sustained at massive taxpayer expense but delivering nothing. Just the thing to justify further cuts in the budget of the Environment Agency, which is already to lose 1,700 of its employees, 10% of its head count, just as its services and expertise have never been more desperately needed. The cuts include 550 jobs lost among the very staff responsible for flood response and resilience.
Funding needs to be restored to the Environment Agency so that it can not only continue with its previous work but expand its efforts beyond the narrow confines of the river channels – where right wing politicos would like its job to begin and end. Flood and water management must be a catchment-wide effort involving not only dredging but sustainable urban drainage, reforestation in headwaters, and management and preservation of floodplains to accommodate floodwaters. All this will need increases in funding, not the cuts that beleaguered Environment Secretary Owen Paterson is only too willing to impose.
The key thing now is to move the debate on. There is a Plan, there is a Vision. Let’s take joint action to drive it forward.
» The Ecologist website is at http://www.theecologist.org/