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Wildlife charities calls for a flood-resilient future for the Somerset Levels

Last modified: 21 January 2014

Flooded meadows at the RSPB West Sedgemoor nature reserve

Image: Andy Hay

The RSPB and the Somerset Wildlife Trust have today called on MPs and others to press government and its agencies to develop a water management strategy for a more flood-resilient future on the Somerset Levels that benefits both people and wildlife. The wildlife charities have also expressed concern over calls for dredging.

RSPB and SWT say that Defra and its agencies must work with Level’s communities to create an evidence-based, effective, and sustainable flood management strategy, fit for the 21st century.

Mark Robins, senior policy officer for the RSPB in the south west said; “Recent floods provide a foretaste of things to come on the Levels, as extreme weather events become more frequent, and winters become wetter. A long term systematic shift to more resilience is vital for people and wildlife.”

The two environment charities, with a combined membership of over 40,000 in Somerset are calling for the adoption of five key principles:

1.    Focus flood defence resources on protecting lives, homes, businesses and utilities. Invest in: better local flood defences for vulnerable rural properties, improvements to key roads making them less vulnerable to disruption, and more support in preparing Level’s communities for extreme events.

2.    Slow the water flow upstream to reduce peak floods on the Levels. For example, upstream soils can be made less compact, natural habitats can be restored, more broadleaved trees can be planted and temporary flood storage created along drainage systems – in both upstream towns and the countryside. This has been effective elsewhere in the country, and needs to be used to help the Levels as well.

3.    Use the existing water management infrastructure better by spreading flood water more appropriately when it reaches the floodplain. Make better use of the Parrett Flood Relief Channel and the gravity floodplain across King’s Sedgemoor. Plan and enable land-use change to provide more space for water.

4.    Build greater resilience in the floodplain land uses. Incentivise the use of more flood-tolerant pastures, and encourage flood-sensitive crops such as silage and maize to be grown off the floodplain.

5.    Maintain critical watercourses to ensure appropriate levels of drainage. This includes dredging at the right scale to keep water moving on the Levels, but in planning how and where to dredge, don’t damage the Level’s wildlife-rich wetlands.

David Leach, speaking for SWT said; “There is nothing new in these calls - they have been made collectively by many local stakeholders - after all the big flood events in the last 15 years. Lack of leadership, for whatever reason has been the biggest barrier to achieving a fair transition to a more resilient floodplain that works for people, communities and nature. Innovations can be developed such as payments for ecosystem services to enable transition.”

RSPB and SWT are also expressing concerns over proposals for dredging the Rivers Tone and Parrett that, they say, would extensively re-shape sections of the rivers.

Mr Robins added; “These proposals are based on a scheme design developed over half a century ago in the 1960s. Much has changed on the Levels since then, and the scheme as put forward by the Royal Bath &West Society and others is currently of real concern to the RSPB and SWT.

“Our concern comes from this dredge being seen as the best or only solution to give the extra protection to homes and critical infrastructure that is needed. A more powerful response would reflect our the five key principles we have outlined.

“In addition, because large parts of the Levels are wildlife rich, and we have yet to see guarantees that nature will be secured in both any dredge and then any subsequent water management operations, we have to see these concerns overcome.”

Despite concerns, both RSPB and SWT have welcome the approach made by the Royal Bath and West Society to engage in the Somerset Levels Relief Fund initiative.

Mr Leach added; “As organisations with a strong interest in the important Somerset Levels and Moors area, we share in common with the Society and other stakeholders across the area a desire to find the best long-term, viable and sustainable ways of managing water and flood events.

Both our organisations are major landowners in the Levels, together owning several thousand acres on the floodplains. Our nature interests, operations and projects can be severely impacted by floods. Our staff and volunteers live in the effected communities of the Levels. At least 80,000 people a year visit SWT and RSPB nature reserves in the Levels.”

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