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The Levels are man-made and require man to maintain them

By Western Morning News  |  Posted: February 11, 2014

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James Crowden, author of In Time of Flood, examines the present flooding crisis in Somerset.

Historically, Somerset is fascinating. Where else can you find slime batches, clyses, rhines and spillways, sluices, meads and leazes, mumps and zoys, eel traps, eel smokers, elver dealers, withy beds, rose knots, slewing and randing, hyles and ruckles, mylls, pylls and cuts, gurgites and fish weirs, hogsheads and cider houses? A rich diversity combined with a rebellious streak that makes Somerset unique.

For thousands of years much of Somerset was an untamed wetland of ‘fenne, stagne and marishe’ – peat moors and meres penned in by coastal dunes and sea walls dating back to Roman and Saxon times. Over 800 years the wetland has slowly been drained inch by inch and brought into agricultural production, first by abbeys and then by farmers prepared to dig deep into their pockets. But with two very wet winters in a row, things seem to be slipping back into the mire. Is it just the weather and geography or has something else gone wrong?

The extraordinary scenes of Heather Venn, beef farmer of Curry Moor, venting her fury on Lord Smith of Finsbury encapsulates twenty years of deep anger and frustration, where the views and sound common sense of local farmers and Drainage Boards have been consistently ignored by the Environment Agency.

Michael Eavis, no stranger to large events, recently called the Environment Agency clowns. But who is the ring master and what is the circus agenda?

Lord Smith is an extremely well-educated man, an expert on Wordsworth and Coleridge and like his predecessor at the Environment Agency, Baroness Young of Old Scone, a keen birdwatcher and Labour peer, but no engineer.

Sadly both of them seem not to have grasped the true nature and history of the Somerset Levels and Moors. It is a man-made environment which needs man-made solutions, as in Holland. At the critical points the rivers are effectively raised canals with many farms and houses well below river and even sea level. The Parrett was once tidal as far inland as Ilchester. Siltation is a major problem.

Famously Baroness Young once said that she would ‘like to attach limpet mines to every pumping station in Somerset’. Combine that with a twenty-year ‘no dredge policy’ backed to the hilt by the RSPB and Natural England and you have a recipe for a real disaster. Even the Environment Agency admits that these rivers are now working at 60% of their capacity.

But geography does not help either. The term ‘Somerset Levels’ technically refers to the coastal clay belt which dams up half the county. It is through this clay belt that the sluggish Parrett flows out to sea, and with a fall of only one foot a mile it is no easy matter. And when Parrett meets the Bristol Channel with a springer on and a strong north-westerly, it can put four feet on top of the tide. This then pens the Parrett in for days, forcing the flood water back over medieval banks onto low lying farmland where it stays for weeks or even months.

Size also matters. The Parrett catchment area is nearly twice the size of Dartmoor, and it is not just one river, it is four. The Isle and Yeo join above Langport and the Tone at Burrowbridge. Both places critical bottlenecks. Add in increased urban runoff caused by new housing further upstream, and you have a very serious problem. The river water now rises twice as fast, they say.

But flooding is endemic and Somerset farmers survive by being stubborn, ingenious and pragmatic. Somerset or Sumorsaete, means ‘land of the summer people’ and refers to herdsmen who grazed rich summer pastures. They still produce some of the best beef and cheese in the world. Give me Red Ruby and cheddar. They even say that without a winter flood the grass does not grow as well. But there are limits.

In 1607 the sea drove as far inland as Glastonbury Tor. Thirty villages in Somerset were swamped and 300 people were drowned as well as livestock. 1607 or 2057?

In 1703 another great storm hit Somerset and hundreds more were drowned. Daniel Defoe wrote an account called The Storm which was published in 1704. It is still regarded as a pioneering work of modern journalism.

Recently Somerset farmers consulted Dutch drainage engineers. Nothing new. When King Charles I wanted to drain King’s Sedgemoor, Cornelius Vermuyden came down to Somerset but the landowners could not agree financially and his ideas were not implemented for nearly 150 years. In those days people blamed God for the floods. Now farmers blame the Environment Agency.

In 1841 silt was such a problem in Bridgwater docks that Brunel invented ‘Bertha’. She weighed in at sixty tons and was the world’s first steam driven dredger-cum-scraper. In the 20th century a steam driven launch called ‘Eroder’ was used with high pressure hoses on the river Parrett to good effect.

Food security and farming is in the end more important than bird watching. It is a very complex equation but one thing is certain, you can’t sit in an office and dredge with a computer mouse.

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  • bullocks400  |  February 11 2014, 7:57PM

    Well researched and written Mr Crowden. Keep telling the truth and hopefully some sense may come to pass. I fear a long and tough journey, the 'wetters' and re-wilders are legion. They appear to be singing from the same orchestrated hymn sheet. I guess that is what happens when huge amounts of money are thrown at the conservationists/environmentalists, common sense becomes a rare thing and the power becomes dangerous. For the record, I am not against care of the environment, quite the reverse. I just object so strongly to the arrogant and self righteous way so many of these people insist they know best. Take away their funding and big salaries and then lets see how many are still out there fighting the good fight!

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  • Moor2River  |  February 11 2014, 11:50AM

    A manmade environment does indeed need man to maintain it - Nature will keep moving the goalposts however and that maintenance may become a far bigger job than anyone realises. Dredging increases erosion in the long term which contributes to the build up of silt that causes the problem - presumably this is one reason why the EA decided to stop doing it - as well as cost of course. It is quite wrong that the people of Somerset levels have been left with no 'back-up' plan - abandonment of dredging should have been accompanied by more effective and less destructive methods of flood management - like planting trees. Water has been shown to absorb into wooded soil at 67 times the rate it does on grass. Dredging is a quick fix, not a long term solution, which is what Somerset needs. Unfortunately, the weather is changing and has always changed, the real lesson for the future is don't drain wetlands - it is more trouble than it is worth. Also - we do not need the Somerset Levels as agricultural land to maintain food security - when 'food security' is used in this way, what is actually meant is 'beef and lamb security' - both tasty yes, but neither are essential. It's time we started to take on board the lessons nature is trying to teach us rather than playing King Canute with the rising waters.