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Medieval farmers could stop flooding – so why won’t the Environment Agency?

31 January 2014

11:48 AM

31 January 2014

11:48 AM

Our neighbour Philip Merricks is a farmer on Romney Marsh, 90 per cent of whose land is below sea level. The marsh would not exist without the medieval ingenuity which ‘inned’ it from the sea. Phil is therefore well placed to understand the interests of farmers on the Somerset Levels who have now been inundated for a month. But he is also a conservationist, owning and running two bird reserves, so is pro-farming and pro-wildlife, which too few are. Last week, he went to the Somerset Levels as chairman of the Hawk and Owl Trust, which has a reserve down there. He tells me that while the usual winter waterlogging is good for wildlife, what is happening in Somerset now is as terrible for wildlife as it is for farmers — too deep, too widespread, too prolonged. The half-blocked rivers have become like clogged arteries: the whole system has had a heart attack. Routine annual dredging of the Tone and the Parrett kept the balance right, but the Environment Agency stopped dredging when it came into being in 1996. The current disaster is the accumulated result of nearly 20 years of false doctrine. This also explains the EA’s reluctance to maintain coastal defences. On 6 December last year, the sea overtopped its walls in Sheppey and spread on to Phil’s Elmley National Nature Reserve. Erosion of the seawall was much worse wherever, on the landward face, the EA had not mown the grass. Strange that a government body of the 21st century understands less about the effects of water than the local farms and corporations of the 14th.

The Environment Agency’s opposition to dredging is reported, but not explained. Poor Chris Smith, the current chairman, gurgles inarticulately as if the floods were closing over his head. The answer, as with so much in the management of the environment, is ideological. Especially under its former chief executive, Lady Young of Old Scone and New Labour (I have made only half of that title up), the EA has seen human activity as the enemy. Lady Young has been quoted in Parliament as saying that she would like to place limpet mines on all the old pumping stations to get rid of them. If people are the problem, you wonder why the EA employs more than 11,000 of them. Without human intervention, the Somerset Levels would become an inland sea. Perhaps that is what the EA wants.

As the owner of a bit of ‘river frontage’ (normally a thin stream, but flooded as I write), I pay what is called a ‘scut’. (I believe the word is the origin of the phrase ‘scot-free.’) This tax takes £8.48 a year from me for the Romney Marsh Internal Drainage Board. This sensible body, which has local representation, now has only low-level responsibilities for small watercourses, because, in 1996, power tried to defy gravity and drained upwards to the EA. It is time for it to start trickling down once more.

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  • AndyP

    We need to get this in perspective. Britain has not been self-sufficient in food for centuries and it ain’t going to be anytime soon. There needs to be a cost-benefit analysis of flood defences for both residential and agricultural areas. If ‘losers’ are compensated and helped to relocate, surely they must understand that it is risky to live perched on a crumbling cliff or below sea level.

  • Alan Cree

    I question whether previous farmers would have considered the draining of the levels feasible if they experienced the rainfall patterns that we have experienced over recent years

    • thegreyfox53

      Ah yes, if you look at England / Rainfall / Annual … you will find that statistically, there is no increase in average rainfall … once again, a comment with no substance whatsoever

      the truth is that since
      the late 90’s, when the Labour party, in their wisdom, stopped dredging
      rivers in order to increase “biodiversity”, our rivers have been
      gradually silting up, gradually being clogged with detritus which has
      now built up to the level where the rivers can no longer cope with any
      increased rainfall. … and their “biodiversity” is lying dead under 6 ft of sewage filled water

  • global city

    Because they are after doing something else for nature…. they are eco freaks who are utterly convinced that CAGW is true and that man has had a choke hold on nature in the Somerset :Levels for too long… and they are rectifying things.

    I enjoyed watching the videos made for this project

    It is the best compendium of the absurdity of CAGW that I’ve come across. Be sure to watch Christopher Essex.

  • Ricky Strong

    I really wish we had a first class system in place to store water in this country. Consensus says that it’s only about 0.007% of the world’s fresh water that is accessible. We are privileged to have so much of it, one day we will realise it, but I have no doubt that as with much else, it will be too late when we do.

  • BoiledCabbage

    Medieval farmers were growing food to eat, which was a priority back then. Now the priority seems to be havens for Wading Birds and other nice RSPB projects. Food is flown in from elsewhere.

    • Wessex Man

      Until their own economies pick up on their exports to us, then we are up the very wide creek without a paddle, we couldn’t feed 48 million in WW2 and now we are in truth up near 80 million, Dave is cancelling the 10 year Census because he doesn’t want us to know how many are here to feed.

      Meanwhile the Environmental Agency is develoing the vole and field populations to feed future generations!

      • Trofim

        Up near 80 million? That’s quick. It was 63.5 in 2011. Where did you get your data?

  • XH558

    Owen Paterson’s ‘Plan B’ is to drown all the badgers.

  • The Laughing Cavalier

    At £100,000 a year for a three day week the hapless socialist plutocrat Lord Smith can hardly be described as “poor”. He and the agency he chairs are yet another toxic legacy of the Blair/Brown years. Call me Dave should have had the nous and the guts to clear the NuLabour nomenklatura out of the quangocracy the moment he took office. Too late now.

    • Doggie Roussel

      Well spoken, Laughing Cavalier… reality and the well-being of country folk is yet again overlooked in deference to the urban culture of all those ghastly Islington and Edinburgh socialists who having not only done their best to ruin the UK’s economy, but now seem hell-bent on destroying its rural heritage.

      Lord Smith would have been hanged, drawn & quartered 300 years ago for the willful damage that he has done to rural England…. but in his case it was simply smug complacency and the assumption of the divine right, so manifestly displayed by Blair and Brown, to ride completely roughshod over the interests of the rural population of this country.

    • Meysam Panahi
  • fathomwest

    Excellent article. But it needs real leadership to have the bottle to close down the EA and hand its responsibilities back to the bodies that will work with and for the local needs. But does anyone believe that Cameron has the bottle?
    Yesterday I watched a debate on SkyNews between a farmers wife a sensible chap from The RSPB, A man who knew all about the area and drainage and another man whose expertise escapes me. It was a really interesting debate on the problems that has caused the flooding in Somerset and what they believe are the answers. One thing emerged was the obstructive manner of the EA over many years.
    I also read, in another newspaper, an article written by the farmer who started and runs the Glastonbury Festival. He knows the land and he has no love for the EA.
    It is time for action Cameron.
    The description in the article of the past Chief Executive is quite worrying. We have had the dictatorship and politicising of the Charity Commission and both have one thing in common The Labour Party and the nutters involved within it. Why Cameron agreed to Smith I will never know.

  • BarkingAtTreehuggers

    if this is not a clear case of *centralist* government organisations not delivering what ought to be delivered locally then I have no idea what could be.

    • Ron Todd

      Could we sell it it the Dutch and pay of a lump of the national debt?

  • McRobbie

    Civil Servcie = incompetence and intellectual arrogance. They can blame the minister for their failures and no civil servant in charge loses their job…overpaid underchallenged and out of our taxes.

  • In2minds

    Medieval farmers did not have the EU to contend with!

    • Denis_Cooper


      “The measure focuses on the adaptation of dredging practices to changes in water depth, navigability, erosion and siltation in rivers … ”

      Leading to:

      “Dredging is legislated

      The London Convention of 1972 can be regarded as a starting point of the development of the legislative framework for dredging. It is part of the international framework of (environmental) legislation related to management of dredged material.

      The legislative framework contains international regulations, which must be implemented by national authorities, for example in Europe the Water Framework Directive, the Waste Directive and the Bird and Habitat Directive. This EU legislation is being translated into national legislation in a number of different ways. Dredging operations have to comply with a complex patchwork of international and national regulations, and a good understanding of these legislative demands is crucial for successful dredging project.”

      • HookesLaw

        The London Convention was to do with dumping of waste. Again it was an international convention nothing to do with thre EU.

        • Denis_Cooper

          Now read the second paragraph as well.

          • HookesLaw

            Are you suggesting that dredging should be carried out without any regulation?

            • Denis_Cooper

              I’m suggesting that if Charles Moore wishes to write an article condemning the Environment Agency for failing to dredge and allowing floods to occur then he should not stop at:

              “The Environment Agency’s opposition to dredging is reported, but not explained.”

              but instead he should seek an explanation, which may or may not be found in the relevant EU Directives.

            • Tom M

              I think you have it back to front. We have the legislation but not the dredging.

        • Wessex Man

          ah there you are Hooky, I’m surprised that you weren’t on the other thread about Dave’s car crash referendum!

      • Tom M

        The practical effect of the “legislative framework” to which you refer seems to be to do nothing about it at all. Sounds very much like the EU and how the UK reacts to it.

    • swatnan

      … in those days it was called the Papacy, and even kings had to kowtow to an ‘elected’ Pope; that is unless they could bribe him. And the RC Church took their tithe, more than a fair share. of the proceeds.The gravy train has been around for donkeys ears.

  • Denis_Cooper

    Rather than automatically laying all the blame on the Environment Agency, Charles Moore would be doing us a service if he started with a google search for

    [“environment agency” “habitats directive”]

    and looked at some of the references which came up:

    and then proceeded further to investigate to what extent that 1992 EU Directive, and the EU Birds Directive, and their interpretation by the European Environment Agency, may have had some influence on what the Environment Agency in this country has been doing about dredging watercourses and other aspects of the management of wetlands:

    “All in all the directive protects over 1.000 animals and plant species and over
    200 so called “habitat types” (e.g. special types of forests, meadows, wetlands,
    etc.), which are of European importance.”

    Now it’s possible that nothing the EU has done has had any effect at all in creating this situation and that it is all the fault of the Environment Agency, but given that there is now this interference from the EU – which was not something that his medieval farmers had to deal with, of course – it’s also possible that the problem can be traced back to the EU; and maybe as a journalist paid to spend time producing articles like this one Charles Moore could spend some of that time looking into it for us and establishing the facts as far as that proves possible.

    And if he found that the Environment Agency has been required by some aspect of EU law to act as it has done, with the consequences we now see, then we could start a discussion on how Parliament could legislate to disapply that EU law and so help to prevent any repetition of this winter’s flooding; and, who knows, maybe we’d see some Tory MPs and some MPs of other parties embarrassing a minister with another legislative proposal which the government claimed was “illegal”.

    • HookesLaw

      You are right – ‘it’s possible that nothing the EU has done has had any effect at all’

      ‘The Bern Convention on the Conservation of European Wildlife and Natural Habitats, also known as the Bern Convention (or Berne Convention), is a binding international legal instrument in the field of Nature Conservation, it covers the natural heritage
      in Europe, as well as in some African countries. The Convention was
      open for signature on 19 September 1979 and came into force on 1 June
      1982. It is particularly concerned about protecting natural habitats and
      endangered species, including migratory species.’

      Oh and The EU does not make it rain.

      • Denis_Cooper

        So are you denying the existence of EU Directives – the Water Framework Directive, the Waste Directive and the Bird and Habitat Directive – which are held by the Central Dredging Association
        to be relevant to dredging?

        • HookesLaw

          Are you denying that these directives are a response to the Berne Convention which we would need to impliment whether in or out of the EU?
          As it is the EU directive ensures that all EU countries adopt them equally to ensure level competition. I am guessing but we would probably have to meet the standards as part of the single market even if out of the EU and in nthe EEA. But we are obliged under the International Convention to meet the required standards.

          • Denis_Cooper

            I’ve no idea whether the EU Directives imposed through the mechanisms created in the EU treaties were a response to a previous wider international treaty; the fact is that those EU Directives do exist and under the EU treaties they are binding on this country including the Environment Agency.

            As for your guess that we would still have to comply with the same regulations even if we were not in the EU, that is your guess and the guess that you prefer to make because you will always seek to defend the EU, apart from on those occasions when you pretend that you are as eurosceptic as the next man and want us to leave the EU.

    • itdoesntaddup

      I suggest you check out this:

      and then ask yourself what the Danes, Germans, French, Swedes and Austrians are doing in to comply with the EU directives in comparison with our own EA.

      • Denis_Cooper

        Does that link say that there are no EU laws which are relevant to decisions to dredge or not dredge made by the Environment Agency in this country?

        As I say above, if a journalist wants to properly inform his readers on the causes of the flooding he will not stop at:

        “The Environment Agency’s opposition to dredging is reported, but not explained.”

        but instead he will seek an explanation, which may or may not be found in the relevant EU Directives.

  • itdoesntaddup

    An organisation not fit for purpose. Read all about it:

    P.S. Note how grossly overmanned it appears to be – with a culture of obstructing normal people from doing sensible things.

  • swatnan

    Bring in the Dutch!
    If the Ancient Egyptians could manage then surely we can; all it requires is a change in agriculture, and a proper design of homes, that can be abandoned during the flooding season and returned to when the floods have subsided.

    • fozz

      It was a Dutch engineer, Cornelius Vermuyden who drained the Fens in the 17th century by constructing a network of interconnected existing rivers, specially dug ‘drains’ and diverted watercourses. Sponsored by the Earl of Bedford at the time. Now the Fens, largely below sea level, just don’t flood because of the imaginative engineering then and careful maintenance and active management now. I was thinking only today the Somerset Levels could have done with something along the same lines. But who has the imagination or the motivation now?

      • Denis_Cooper

        According to Owen Patterson on TV the other night Dutch engineers also did it for the Somerset Levels, and that worked, and it will work again once we “resume” the dredging that the Environment Agency gave up for reasons that Charles Moore apparently does not care to explore, maybe in case it ends up with the finger being pointed at Brussels.

        • fozz

          That’s probably it. I live in the Fens and you drive hardly any distance without seeing the dredging and weed clearing of the water courses. It’s called planning – it’s also not a one-off exercise but a permanent programme of maintenance. Common sense really but there’s a rumour that’s in short supply amongst our so-called masters.

        • the viceroy’s gin

          Let’s play devil’s advocate re the Dutch. They’re today importing 3rd world savages to make up for their population decline. Meanwhile, they’re paying massively to support the dewatering operation you speak of, that among other things helps feed the Dutch population. How about they not add to their population with 3rd world savages, not pay for the massive dewatering effort, and allow that land to decline to other less costly uses, since they don’t need it to feed the imported savages?

          Farming and living below sea level is likely never going to be a highest and best use of a society’s resources, I suspect.

  • HookesLaw

    The worst recorded floods in Somersel levels history was in 1607. Yes you have to hand it to those medieval types.
    There were other bad floods in 1872-73 (107 square miles were underwater from October to March).

    • radsatser

      If you are going to try and counter argument with data, then at least get your head out of your backside and research your argument.

      The medieval period is commonly accepted to have ended at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485. In 1607 there would not have been a single medieval type alive.

    • ButcombeMan

      The 1607 floods were almost certainly the result of a tsunami, not at all the same situation as now. So a partial truth from you, which i will not let you away with..

      The present situation is absolutely intentional on behalf of the Environment Agency. They stopped proper dredging in 1996 in favour of allowing nature to largely take its course. Their so called experts, know EXACTLY what they are doing.

      The inevitable result of that, (this is geologically certain), will be that the rivers will gradually silt up , the rivers will break their banks more regularly, eventually forming almost permanent lagoons, with some of the water finding its own way to the sea by various routes.

      Imagine something like the Nile delta in 200 years.

      There are big decisions to be made, they will need to be political, they are:

      1. Resume proper dredging, a massive operation in the beginning, to lower river floors and support local management of the rhynes. At same time government supported re forestation of surrounding and especially higher land, to slow drainage.

      Under this scenario there will still be, as there has always been, some flooding, sometimes serious but it will be less and over sooner.

      2. Managed retreat, but with an honesty from the Environment Agency and Government which has so far been missing.

      And, it is no use blaming the hapless Owen Patterson and this government, as today’s “Times” tries to do.

      Yes they and he, have been slow to respond. That is all. The problem goes back years and is almost entirely a NuLabour initiative and program. But then Labour has hardly any voters in Somerset.

      • ButcombeMan

        I should add that my local farmer contact tells me that before the EU, the dredged silt was used locally to raise embankments or otherwise spread about.

        I am told that now, the dredged silt, for some barmy reason is classified as “contaminated waste” so cannot be put on the land.

        If true, this hardly seems credible, but there you are. EU rules OK?

        Vote UKIP.

        • the viceroy’s gin

          If you let the flood plain flood, that flooding will distribute silt evenly across the land. Absent that natural flooding and the resulting silting, the ground elevation in the former flood plain is going to fall over time, as it’s compacted and soil mass escapes (scoured off during rain events, blown off by wind erosion, and escaping as gas product resulting from aerobic and anoerobic processes). And the flood-distributed silt has a net positive effect on the soil’s fertility in the flood plain, as mentioned above.

        • Doggie Roussel

          The arrogance of politicians and civil servants, all in thrall to the wretched EU, is allowing the countryside to drown while the urban bureaucrats and suits are quite happy to sit back and take Brussels’ shilling.

  • Alexsandr

    we need to be careful. Making the rivers in Somerset drain across the levels will increase the flood risk lower down stream, in the towns of Highbridge and Bridgwater, and vollages lower down.
    The point of flood plains is to even out flood pulses in rivers when the river level rises and subsises quite quickly. These do the damage causing rivers to overtop defences.
    Somerset is prone to pulses because of the mendips, limestone so full of caves which allow water to drain from the hilltops and gush out of streams.
    Dredging does nothing to even out flood pulses -that’s why you increase the risk lower down.
    I am not saying dredging is a complete no-no -just its not a universal panacea.
    The ‘sea’ where the levels dump their water into is not really a sea. If you dump a lot of river water into the Bristol Channel, you will raise the water level. Probably not a good idea when sea levels will be high this weekend with spring tides, low air pressure and a south westerly wind.
    What is needed is a plan for the entire catchment, putting in measures to keep water upstream in ponds, bogs etc
    One other thing. The people in medieval times didn’t have the amount of built up areas we have now. Because built up areas cause quicker runoff causing flooding lower down.

    • HookesLaw

      You are wasting your breath. The word is out and its dredge. Dredge dredge dredge.
      Yet another manufactured stick to beat the government with. Another example of the usual triumph of hysteria over reason.

      • Wessex Man

        Yes, you are quite right hooky, the Environmental Agency the 1990s when er the Tories were in power!

    • Alexsandr

      the other thing is flooding fertilizes the ground. They will have a bumper crop this summer!

      • William Haworth

        Not if the flooding has killed all the grassland they won’t. And how are they going to plough for another crop any time between now and March, with a submarine?

      • flaxdoctor

        Crop of what? Any grass or autumn-planted crops will have died of anoxia – they won’t be able to plant anything for months because moving machinery on wet land is disastrous for soil compaction – and often not very good for the machines.

        You’re not from farming stock, are you?

        • Alexsandr

          no but I have seen stuff grow after a flood.

          • William Haworth

            No crop this year requires a 100% yield increase in next year’s crop. Stuff grows after a flood if the flood doesn’t last very long, or if it goes away at the right time. Neither of these applies in Somerset at the moment.

          • ButcombeMan

            Wonderful insight.

            It will all be OK then. Alexsandr says so.

            • Alexsandr

              no i didnt.
              but what abiut the farmers in the midlands who have had their fields flooded several times this year? WIll their crops work thois year? or will they be able to put livestock on the fields before their winter feed runs out?
              but we do need flood plains to flood sometimes to put back nutrients, and it does improve yields.
              Onr of the downsides of the Aswan dam in Egypt is the nile doesnt flood any more so the fertile lands ion the flood plain are slowly losing their fertility
              So the main point I am making is there is no panacea to flood problems. You can make things worse for people downstream is the obvious one. But also you can cause damage.
              I know the levels have been underwater for a long long time. And it must be hard. But please dont grab at the first idea as the solution. It may have unexpected consequenses.
              and Farmers cant lecture us about stuff. vegetation is one of the beat ways of storing water upstream. So who have been grubbing out hedges wholesale? Now that may be making flooding worse couldn’t it?

              • ButcombeMan

                Look we each have our own things we know about, reasonably well. Am I right that I thanked you for information some weeks ago on railways? Was it you?

                On this issue you are out of your depth !.

                You are now going off into distraction mode because you have got some things wrong.

                It is a managed landscape, it has been for centuries. The Environment Agency stopped managing it, as a deliberate act of policy. That policy needs a rethink and political overview

                There are some EU rules probably affecting things, calling the dredged silt “contaminated waste” may be one, We are not dealing here with the Mersey/Irwell industrial catchment area after all.

                Common sense needs to be used.

                Give up lad

                • the viceroy’s gin

                  Yes, it may have been managed for centuries in one manner, but that manner can be changed, and arguably should be as a cost efficiency measure. A century ago, it took 19 farmers to feed themselves and one other person. Hunger often stalked the land. Food was a national security issue, and was treated as such, and public policy reflected that. Food was to be close at hand, and the land was managed accordingly.

                  Today, one farmer can feed himself and 19 other people. The food can come from a bit further off, and the flood plain may not require dewatering to provide it. Or, the types of food grown in the flood plain can be adjusted around the natural flood cycles. The government can manage this evolution as to how the land is managed, much as it did under the older protocols.

                  Certainly, the EUSSR mandates should be rejected in this and about every other instance. But that doesn’t mean the blind haven’t stumbled onto the correct policy here.

                  These are truisms: The flooding enriches the flood plain, and replenishes it with silt to keep ground surface elevations from falling. Dewatering is a costly exercise. Further channeling the river course increases water velocities and sends additional volumes downstream to create additional flooding there.

                  When it comes to water resources, there is no free lunch. It is a zero sum game. All the cliches apply here. Proper engineering and public policy doesn’t ignore the full costs and effects of what it brings on. It faces up to them, and when the time comes it makes the proper decisions, the sensible decisions.

      • ButcombeMan

        I think you are wrong,

        I know a beef farmer down there, he tells me that with prolonged flooding the soil goes anaerobic and productivity declines substantially. He should know.

        I am told now that everything apart from water birds are done for. The oxygen is driven out of the ground and anaerobic processes begin including the production of methane, the sick joke for the warmists in the Environment Agency.

        This explains it:>

      • Alan Cree

        It would fertilize it ,were it not contaminated with sewage. I suspect there will be questions over the suitability of produce from the levels for human consumption after the waters recede. Should they recede that is.

        • Alexsandr

          only a few years ago I remember them using the stuff they filtered out from sewage being sprayed on farmland. Dunno how muck it was treated tho.

    • ButcombeMan

      Raise the water level of the sea!!!!!

      One sees some mad stuff on internet comments!

      Nurse, nurse, …….time for Akexandr’s medication again.

      • Alexsandr

        ask a sailor who needs to know depth of water. sea levels do change according to local weather. especially near rivers.

        and you haven’t answered my point about dredging the levels making flooding worse lower down.

        • ButcombeMan

          You are trying desperately to recover…… but failing miserably. You did make me laugh though the first time. Problem is you did not intend your comment as a joke.

          What has much more effect than the output of a river on sea level is barometric pressure. Highs and lows if that helps you.

          The nurse is still keeping you under observation.

          And no one is suggesting “dredging the levels”

          • Alexsandr

            look at the pic at the top.

            and sea levels are made up of a load of factors. tide, wind, air pressure and runoff. whats to argue there.

            • ButcombeMan

              Dredging the RIVERS dear boy.

              Do not struggle any more.

              • Alexsandr

                Oi think you have been at the zider, me dearie.