Somerset Levels: Financial and economic impact of the flooding

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Written by:   | Posted 05-February-2014 10:36

With dredging of Somerset’s Parrett and Tone rivers now placed firmly on the agenda, thoughts are turning to what could be a catastrophic financial and economic impact once the flood waters are drained.

After a week in which the national media has descended on the quiet hamlets of the Somerset Levels, there is finally hope.

Somerset County Council put the cost of the floods in 2012 at £10 million, though farmers on the Levels fear that figure could be surpassed, with more land under water for longer.

The current flooding has now entered its fifth week in places and what many said was seasonal flooding – to which they could adapt – is becoming far more serious.

Farmer James Winslade, who has become something of a totem for farmers on the Levels, says many in the area have already lost more than the £160,000 he lost in the 2013 floods, and he fears that the £11,000 spent re-seeding his grassland will have gone to waste once the land finally drains.

Ian Johnson, spokesman for the NFU in the South West, said: “The farming community is very good at rallying around, but what farmers can’t cope with is having fields under water.

"Flooding is supposed to be a one-in-100-year event, but this is the second serious flood in 14 months. Some businesses haven’t recovered since last time. It’s a huge problem and scores – if not hundreds – of farmers are affected.”

Flooding in Somerset in spring 2012 – of between two and four weeks – resulted in anoxic conditions that severely damaged pastures, with the loss of grass for the rest of the season and land requiring re-seeding in some areas, reducing grass yields by up to 25 per cent in the following year(Morris and Brewin, 2013).

NFU chief economist Phil Bicknell said it was too early to attach a cost to the damage caused but split his assessment into two areas; the clean-up and the loss to crops or livestock.

With livestock making grass for forage dominant on the Levels, the impact is lessened, he said. But the cost of keeping cattle inside is already starting to be felt.

Mr Bicknell added: “But in areas where there are crops, you’d have to consider the cost of preparing the seedbed – and whether there is even time to get a spring crop in the ground.”

The clean-up is also likely to be a significant factor and one that only becomes apparent once the waters recede. After the floods in Cumbria in 2010, stones and debris in fields formed a “substantial chunk” of work.

But with the water lying on the ground and farmers largely being forced to down tools, attention has focused on the causes of the flooding, with dredging promised “as soon as it is safe” and long-term plans being laid with drainage boards and local authorities.

Yet others – especially politicians – are turning their eyes further inland and questioning the wisdom of dredging the rivers, a project carrying a price tag of £4 million, little in comparison to that spent on conserving the Levels as what some describe as “habitat museums”.

Speaking in Parliament on Monday, Paul Flynn, the Labour MP for Newport West, raised the issue of upland denudation, comparing the flooding seen on the Somerset Levels with the lack of any on low-lying areas of Gwent, which “have an identical environment, share 2,000 years of drainage history, have had the same weather and tides, and have had no dredging, but have had no floods.”

He asked: “Does the answer lie in the fact that the woods in Gwent are richly endowed with trees, and have not been denuded in the same way as on the Mendips?”

Environment Secretary Owen Paterson responded, saying that: “For the long term, there is a role for holding water further back in the catchment, as there is possibly a role for building a barrage on the Parrett.

"Those would be special measures for a very particular landscape, but his own landscape of the Gwent levels have their own characteristics.”

But the comments from Mr Flynn and others along similar lines have upset farming leaders, who have variously branded such criticism “unacceptable” and a “crass oversimplification”.

While acknowledging that there is a role for upland areas to play in the wider farming landscape, the National Sheep Association criticised a repeated suggestion that “sheep in the uplands are to blame for any environmental, access or biodiversity issue that arises.”

Association chief executive Phil Stocker said: “The suggestion that our uplands should be used to hold and store water and that sheep farming not only prevents this but makes the situation worse is unfounded and irresponsible.

"The anti-farming lobby conveniently chooses not to mention that many of our lowland drainage systems are centuries old and that our wildlife has evolved in line with the farming and land practices over this period. They ignore the fact that many of these drainage systems have fallen into disrepair – often on purpose with the aim of creating habitat museums. They also ignore the fact that so much of our land area is concreted over, with no water-holding management.

“Sadly, BBC Countryfile chose this subject to give airtime to George Monbiot’s ‘dreams’ at a time when global needs are about using our natural capital wisely to feed a growing population, using fewer resources in doing so and improving our environment at the same time.

"Times change and we are disadvantaged by often only seeing with one’s own lifetime. It was only six or seven years ago that our uplands were far more industrious than they are now. , yet in this era we seem to be constantly trying to make parks and museums of them instead.

“There is no one size that fits all solutions – we need to protect the carbon stored in our peat-lands, we need trees, we need to manage our water far more carefully – but we also need to feed ourselves, protect our agricultural diversity and consider people and rural communities in all of this.”

The NSA strongly promotes the message that the uplands (less favoured areas) offer a huge amount to our environment, food production, heritage and rural communities:

• Much of what the public value about the countryside, and enjoy when they visit or move to rural areas, has been created by farming activity over many years.

• Maintaining and modernising traditional sheep farming business in the hills and uplands contributes substantially to food production and viable successful rural communities, and makes a positive input to safeguarding the rural population. There is a strong symbiotic relationship between a healthy, successful rural population in the remote hill and upland areas of UK and a thriving, viable sheep sector.

• Successful upland farming businesses provide soil fertility, carbon sequestration, the production of nutritious red meat with minimum inputs and natural and sustainably produced fibre (wool). Areas grazed by sheep also encourage biodiversity for animal, bird and plant life.

• Integration of trees in the uplands can provide benefits to sheep farming businesses (such as by providing shelter belts) rather than simply taking large areas of land away from food production.

• Sheep enable the herbage on peat to be grazed safely, thus ensuring that wild fires are kept to a minimum and that the peat deposits continue to grow.

• Hill sheep production is at the very beginning of a huge ‘multiplier’ effect which not only provides employment for businesses upstream and downstream (farm service providers and farmers buying livestock for lowland farms) but also products for the food retail sector and high fashion clothing, interiors, upholstery and carpets.

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