Pushing back the tide

February 15, 2014 at 9:18 am (environment, Rosie B)

European and UK policies towards land management increase the likelihood of flooding, according to George Monbiot:-

The story begins with a group of visionary farmers at Pontbren, in the headwaters of Britain’s longest river, the Severn. In the 1990s they realised that the usual hill-farming strategy – loading the land with more and bigger sheep, grubbing up the trees and hedges, digging more drains – wasn’t working. It made no economic sense, the animals had nowhere to shelter, and the farmers were breaking their backs to wreck their own land.

So they devised something beautiful. They began planting shelter belts of trees along the contours. They stopped draining the wettest ground and built ponds to catch the water instead. They cut and chipped some of the wood they grew to make bedding for their animals, which meant that they no longer spent a fortune buying straw. Then they used the composted bedding, in a perfect closed loop, to cultivate more trees.

One day a government consultant was walking over their fields during a rainstorm. He noticed something that fascinated him. The water flashing off the land suddenly disappeared when it reached the belts of trees the farmers had planted. This prompted a major research programme, which produced the following astonishing results: water sinks into the soil under trees at 67 times the rate at which it sinks into the soil under grass. The roots of the trees provide channels down which the water flows, deep into the ground. The soil there becomes a sponge, a reservoir which sucks up water and then releases it slowly. In the pastures, by contrast, the small sharp hooves of the sheep puddle the ground, making it almost impermeable, a hard pan off which the rain gushes.

One of the research papers estimates that – even though only 5% of the Pontbren land has been reforested – if all the farmers in the catchment did the same thing, flooding peaks downstream would be reduced by about 29%. Full reforestation would reduce the peaks by about 50%. For the residents of Shrewsbury, Gloucester and the other towns ravaged by endless Severn floods, that means – more or less – problem solved.



  1. dagmar said,

    I also read this article and my first conclusion was “Well fancy that, some farmers seem to have some of the knowledge of a Geography GCSE course from the mid-1990s, which could also otherwise be called ‘common sense’ (along with ‘removing hedgerows kills nature and encourages soil erosion, ruins farmland and leads eventually to ‘dustbowls’ (and flooding)). But the government consultant was ‘fascinated’. Oh dear.”

    It’s like when someone this week from the UK government blamed flooding on “gardening programmes” who apparently encourage gardeners to not do gardening, but to concrete over their gardens.

    While I am a fan of brutalism, I’ve never noticed Alan Titchmarch as being particuarly into tarmac. I thought it was the running down of and ever-increased costs of public transport, along with ever-longer commutes meaning a private car being the only option for many people, and the lack of on-street parking, which meant that urban gardens have been filled in with nowhere for the water to run-off into (though of course, that could be done differently, with bricks, lattice-type paving etc. – but it rarely is), apart from into over-filled drains. Other gardens have had ever-tinier housing built onto them, connected to a drainage and sewage system not designed for ever more buildings.

    And that isn’t the fault of horticulturists, but of a system that only creates jobs in a tiny part of south-east England, privatises and runs public services such as transport, and cuts planning and building regulations etc. as “pointless red tape” and “green crap”. Obviously.

    • Rosie said,

      I agree that cutting down every tree is bad for the land is pretty elementary. In my home country New Zealand you see half hillsides that have slipped through erosion after being deforested.

      I also agree that the whole working pattern is insane. You work in London, you can’t afford to live there, you end up living miles away with a long commute and long working hours, and as for gardening, with the long commute you’re too knackered and haven’t got time to potter round with seeds as earlier generations did, so you may as well keep the front garden tidy by turning it into a paved parking space. That really is wretched for reasons of aesthetics and psychological well being, as well the environmental ones.

      • dagmar said,

        I’m not sure about the “lack of time” argument, or people wouldn’t watch the television or use the internet/games consoles quite as much. Maybe more “lack of energy”?

        And I meant “privatises and runs down public services…”

  2. Pushing back the tide | OzHouse said,

    […] Feb 15 2014 by admin […]

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