Anton Coaker: End the blame game and give hill farmers credit for flood alleviation

Discussion in 'Agricultural Matters' started by jade35, Jan 6, 2016.

  1. jade35

    jade35 Member

    S E Cornwall
    The comment is brilliant as well:D

    Anton Coaker: End the blame game and give hill farmers credit for flood alleviation

    By Western Morning News | Posted: January 06, 2016

    Anton Coaker

    Comments (1)
    OK then, extreme rainfall events, floods, and how it’s all supposedly my fault because I’ve got too many sheep.

    Let’s start with ‘all this rain’. Global weather systems naturally oscillate, and one phase of this gigantic shuffling– a huge swell of warmer water flowing across the Pacific- is known as ‘El Nino’. And we’re in one right now, which NASA says is as significant as the previous most extreme one in 1997. They’re known to upset weather patterns worldwide, and it’s very likely a contributory factor.

    And we absolutely have had rain like this before. The 13 inches in 24 hours in Northern England last month might’ve been a record, but there are plenty of extremes recorded over the decades. The Lynmouth disaster in 1952 was caused by nine inches of rain falling high on Exmoor in 12 hours, while the 2004 Boscastle flood followed three inches in a single hour, both occurring in August.

    Our nation sticks out into the north Atlantic, in the path of an immense ocean current. It drags warm soggy air up from the Gulf of Mexico, itching to be pushed up over Western hills, condense, and widdle on us. So it’s no good being surprised that we occasionally get deluges of rain, which burst out over river banks as they pour back to the sea. The resulting ‘floodplains’ are then layered up with fertile alluvial soil washed from further upstream – annoyingly along with great mounds of pebbles, traffic cones and fallen trees. Over history, we’ve found this soil to be very productive, and the rivers useful communication networks, so we settled extensively nearby. Then, in the north, textile mills were built along valleys, harnessing the rivers’ energy; cities grew, weaving wool from the sheep conveniently found grazing the hills above.

    In days before computers and plasma tellies, the occasional floods were generally a miserable nuisance. Now we build more, while perversely expecting less interruption. Efforts are made to artificially contain floods with raised defences, or allow them to drain away faster through dredged channels downstream…. or not as the case might be.

    Which brings us bang up to date. While we might be able to fly to the moon, we can’t stop rivers flooding out across flat lowlands. Yes, it’s miserable, and it might be getting worse. And No, it won’t go away.

    Some focus has come to rest on what happens upstream, in the hills. A disparate group of commentators have decided to blame farmers upstream. Apparently we’re causing the floods, by grazing too many sheep. The vocal self-appointed eco-experts vary, but their rationale often includes aversion to the meat industry, and hence livestock farming. Some hate bloodsports, and hence grouse moors, and detest ‘the rich’, and therefore landowners generally. A pervasive belief lies behind much of the rhetoric…that the land should be left to nature, to ‘rewild’, and then all of the worlds ills will go away. Drained or damaged peat bogs should be restored, native trees planted, and wolves reintroduced. Pixies and unicorns will probably flourish once more. Half-baked theories and misquoted facts and figures fly around aplenty.

    Perhaps we should counter with some facts. Starting with Dartmoor then, which I do know a little about, although most of this extrapolates. When the last Ice Age started to ease, about 12,000 years ago, the hills were left a barren bleak place, scoured by 100,000 years of conditions so extreme we can hardly imagine.

    Nature soon recovered, blanketing the landscape with vegetation, including scrubby tree cover right up over the tops. Then we arrived, clearing this woodland. In wet phases of climate, mosses began to flourish and peat formed on the subsequently waterlogged plateau.

    The oldest peat on Dartmoor is only a few thousand years old. Ebbing and flowing weather patterns, and evolving human culture shaped what we now have. We’ve been grazing livestock over the hills for centuries, millennia even. Somehow bringing a historic pastoral practice into the modern age, where we produce, more or less sustainably, very low carbon food off comparatively precious wild landscapes.

    It’s a ripe irony that many of the above critics would fall over themselves to protect indigenous people following a low impact lifestyle elsewhere. But because I haven’t got a bone through my nose or a feather headdress, and – apart from the pervading aroma of wet collies and sheep – I pass as a nearly normal member of western society, it’s OK to attack my way of life.

    So, are there too many sheep in the hills? Sadly, no-one seems to have noticed, but lack of profitability and rising labour costs have driven down the national flock, and significantly, back from the hardest hills. There are currently less hill sheep up there than there have been for decades. Most of us are already in environmental schemes, where we restrict upland stocking to leave uneaten vegetation through the winter.

    Then there’s ‘Stop them damaging the ancient peatbogs’. In fact, we mostly stopped draining or cutting peat years ago. Quietly, the tide has already turned, with water companies and conservationists working with hill farmers to restore peatlands. They recognise that we have a legitimate interest, and ancient rights to graze – rather confusingly for some of the tub thumpers, most of us aren’t the squillionaire landlords portrayed, but impoverished working tenants, or on small freeholds. Through dialogue, we’re moving toward a place where we manage peat uplands for the mutually beneficial outcomes. Carbon capture and storage, bio-diversity, water quality and yes, flood prevention are in the mix. And while some in my camp ‘don’t understand what they boffins is blatherin on about’, we can see an opportunity. Progress is made by talking to us, but it certainly won’t be made by shouting at us, and blaming us for all the worlds ills.

    Another myth is that we should cover the hills in native woodland, as this would slow up floodwaters cascading off the hills. This is true to an extent, but nothing like the degree which is touted- 60 fold in one widely misquoted study…which does sound a little bit, er,….optimistic. Tree cover certainly wouldn’t have held up the 13” deluge before Christmas. It goes unsaid that growing these trees won’t be synonymous with maintaining healthy peat bogs. They’re very different habitats, and where the peat has now accrued, the oaks will hardly survive. Anyway, with 65 million people to house and keep warm, what trees we do plant won’t be dedicated to habitat creation and amenity. They’ll have to be functional productive woodlands…failure to do so would be selfish folly.

    So there is progress, and probably more to do. If this extreme rainfall is to be the new norm, we could very possibly explore further ways to help manage catchments. Interestingly, one of my correspondents suggested a network of dams in the form of grassed over bunds, to temporarily hold up damaging torrents. It sounded pretty mad initially, but it made me think.

    And then, we don’t really know what changing climate patterns will do next. Cold melt water coming off Greenland’s ice sheet could do all sorts of things, as could the freeing up of Arctic sea ice and rising temperatures and sea levels.

    What won’t help is singling out us in the uplands to blame for current deluges. If you think grazed grassland sheds rainwater, go and watch the downspout coming off a supermarket roof, or the storm drains on a trunk road, and look around urban lowlands. We all need to think a bit more about the bigger picture, and the impact of 7.3 billion humans - destined to hit 11 by the end of this century. Further, we have little idea that extreme rainfall is going to unfold to be the bigger problem.

    That’s the elephant in the room pal, not my moth eaten ewes up on the hill.

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  2. Landyman

    Landyman New Member

    So stick that in your pipe george and smoke it (thats if the rain doesn't put it out ) :p.
    A rational voice in an irrational world is mr coaker (y)
  3. SRRC

    SRRC Member

    West Somerset
    As usual, brilliantly written, now that's a proper reasoned reply to the Moonbat, much more effective than much of the tripe in the other thread.
    Any chance of making Anton's column a pinned thread? It's a useful resource that really wants to stay on the front page.
    Landyman likes this.
  4. Spot on.

    Hard defences are the solution in some areas, as is increasing the potential to store water upstream, as is dredging, as are SuDS etc etc. To blame one system for the floods is, in my view, misguided as all systems have a part to play in reducing the effects of these ever more frequently occurring events.
    Old Tip likes this.
  5. Pasty

    Pasty Member

    I don't see why we can't work together to sort this out. I've got a fairly minor river running through my land which often floods a village downstream. My field that it runs through is flattish but there is no reason a scheme could not be developed to hold water on that land. A 6' bank running into the corner with a solid exit for the water would restrict flow and flood back up the field, probably holding back millions of gallons for a while. It could be designed so that it would flow over the top and no properties would be damaged if the capacity was exceeded. The excess sent to another scheme further down and so on. All I would ask is to be compensated fairly for any loss of grazing or repairs needed afterwards. It could be done and would be a lot cheaper than these mega schemes they dream up, usually right next to towns.
    MBenjamin likes this.
  6. Re.the sheep lower numbers that been happening for a long time just ask the shearers how many sheep are around now compared to longer ago.But then who would listen to a shearer?
  7. RushesToo

    RushesToo Member

    Another great piece of science dressed up as farmer lore.Excellent as usual.

    Thank you Anton.
  8. High on a hill

    High on a hill New Member

    Loch Lomond
    The flooding is the last thing in a long line of processes. El Niño, bringing food from the other side of the world and "important flying business class meetings" maybe being further up the list of processes. Wish more had your courage and intelligence to speak up for farming so thank you
    Last edited: Jan 8, 2016

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