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Hidden victims of the flooding, from wading birds to hard-pressed farmers

By Western Morning News  |  Posted: December 13, 2012

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They say it's been good weather for ducks, but out on the flooded Somerset Levels too much water can be a bad thing even for wading birds.

That's the worry of conservationists who say the famous birdlife of the Westcountry's biggest – and now wettest – flatlands is suffering thanks to what amounts to a double whammy.

It is the combination of floods old and new that has brought particular harm to the area's internationally important populations of breeding birds.

"We have to look at all the flooding that's happened," says David Leach who is a project manager on the Levels for the Somerset Wildlife Trust (SWT). "Actually it was the flooding during spring and summer that hit wildlife worst – the current flooding has less of an immediate impact because the wintering birds use the wetter areas as a safe place to roost.

"In spring the area is important for breeding waders – those species thrive in very particular conditions, which are normally provided by late hay cuts and the grazing. But this summer local farmers were not able to do those things because of flooding – the land was largely unmanaged because conditions were so difficult.

"A really wet spring and summer is bad for two reasons – ground-nesting birds have their nests washed out – and, because there's no cutting of the grass grazing, the waterlogged fields produce a very long damp sward which is not right for the birds.

"So, generally speaking, breeding waders didn't do well this year – and now we have these floods which have been caused because the ground was already waterlogged," said Mr Leach, who added that he and his colleagues were now concerned about conditions next spring.

Away from the birdlife there have been rumours of widespread rabbit drownings in flooded parts of the Levels.

One Somerton butcher told the Western Morning News: "We can't get our normal supply of wild rabbits because the people who catch them say they're just not around. There's no doubt some have been drowned. But these things happen – it's what nature is all about."

Overall, though, conservationists do not seem overly concerned about the larger mammal species out in the flooded zone.

"Species like roe deer and badgers are big and manoeuvrable enough to make for higher ground," said Mr Leach. "As for rabbits, there are various places where they live (in the flood-affected Levels), but most tend to avoid the lowest areas."

However, he did point out that one of the raised drove roads across an SWT reserve, which was used by rabbits and badgers, had been underwater recently.

There are also concerns for the tiniest creatures of all: "Bumblebees would be a good example of the invertebrates which have been affected," said Mr Leach. "The Levels are a good place both for the common and quite a few quite rare species of bumblebee.

Meanwhile, another Mr Leach – the Muchelney potter John Leach who owns his own nature reserve – told the WMN that his heart went out to the creatures that live in and around his flooded home.

"Our nature reserve was flooded. I assume the squirrels stay up in the trees and maybe we should follow their example – in some countries people build homes on stilts," he laughed. "As for the rabbits, they have headed off to higher ground. I have heard of a small island where there's a concentration of hares nearby, but haven't seen it."

Mr Leach, who has lived in the village for 48 years, says he's never witnessed floods like the ones that have just hit his community.

"We were marooned for a week – we decamped from the house to our shop and galley which is 12 inches higher than the floor level of the house. So we feel luckier than some – out of ten families still flooded in Muchelney we are the only ones still actually living here.

"Now we've got 22 appliances throughout house and sheds dehumidifying the place. But the retail end of our business has stopped dead – why would anyone want to come here and risk their cars in the floods?"

Looking at the brighter side, Mr Leach added: "At least the swans have returned to our nature reserve. We had five hatched last May – and now they've come back which we didn't think they would given the conditions around here."

But now the floods of 2012 have brought about a new consensus. Both conservation organisations and the local agricultural industry agree that it was the earlier flooding which waterlogged the ground and so did the worst damage.

"Now there seems to be a strong consensus growing in the area – all of the parties agree that we do need to get as much control of the water as we can," said WMN columnist and agricultural expert Anthony Gibson. "There's a new desire to work together to get flood defences up to spec' and to design sensible way of getting rid of too much water. We need to use agri-environment money to restore the Somerset Levels to being a grazed marsh, which is important to all involved."

Mr Gibson added: "We held a Round Table meeting the other day of all concerned. One of the main points agreed – by the conservation people as well as farmers – is that uncontrolled flooding is one of the biggest risks to the wildlife of the area as well as to the farming of it. Therefore, the EA must restore flood defences, including rivers, at least to their original design standards, so as to give us the best chance of controlling whatever nature throws at us."

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