In the final part of this week's series on the Somerset Levels, RSPB's Peter Exley looks at the economic opportunities nature in the Levels can provide ...
There was a tired but satisfied buzz in the restaurant. Outside the winds were building to near hurricane force, rain lashing against the windows. As staff brought out steaming plates of food, the talk was of the day’s experiences. During the day we had been down on the Levels right at the heart of the flooding, but we had not deliberately come to gawp at the waters - this was a study tour, 16 guests who had booked months before to spend 3 days on the Somerset Levels in February. Why? To learn about and experience the area’s culture, its history, and its wildlife.
On the tables next to us at the Swan Hotel in Wells was a Naturetrek group, newly arrived, and eager to hear how it was going for us. We exchange stories and experiences - seeing the starling murmurations, a male marsh harrier’s fly by, standing on the top of Glastonbury Tor watching the next squall coming in, watching snipe zig-zagging over Ham Wall and yes, how bad the flooding was.
Our day had been difficult, but we had done almost everything on the itinerary. Our planned walk at the RSPB’s West Sedgemoor reserve was abandoned (snorkels and wetsuits would have been needed), but we watched the herons battling to build their nests at Swell Wood instead. The visit to the Willows & Wetlands Centre had been a great success - they opened their new tearoom extension especially for us, and we were joined by a photographer and journalist working on a story about the Levels wildlife. Ann, the Centre’s owner, joined us and laid on a special showing of a wonderful film about their work.
After a welcome lunch of soup and sandwiches we headed out to search for the flock of 60 cranes, borrowing the radio-tracking kit stored at the Centre, before taking a look at Athelney from the bridge over the River Tone.
For me, Athelney epitomises the future that could be for Somerset. Here, in 878AD, King Alfred sought refuge from the Danes and planned their defeat. It is a pivotal place in England’s history - if he had just sat there and said “ok, I give up”, how different would our history be today? But why do we make so little of this important place? Most people never give this innocent green hill a second look. Yet if Athelney were in Scotland, I’m sure there would be brown signs, maybe even a visitor centre such as Culloden or Glenfinnan.
And that is the choice we face right now, here, on the Somerset Levels. Give up, carry on as before, do nothing constructive. Or plan for the future. Alfred would have chosen Athelney because it afforded an island of safety in a rich wetland that provided abundant food all year round. What should we chose today?
We believe Somerset is sitting on a goldmine. There is a remarkable fusion of history, myth, legend, archaeology, culture, local produce and wildlife. Where else can you find the oldest human trackway in the world, ancient lake villages, the birthplace of Christianity in the UK where Joseph of Arimathea may have walked, King Arthur’s burial place (ok, maybe), ruined Abbeys, unique wetland landscapes, and the best nature reserves in the country?
Nature reserves and wildlife in other parts of the country are increasingly seen as vital parts of the tourist and local economy. On Mull, white-tailed eagles bring in £5 million to this small island economy. In Suffolk, the 80,000 visitors a year to the RSPB’s Minsmere reserve spend an estimated £8 million locally and supports over 100 jobs in the surrounding communities.
The question is, how can Somerset benefit from nature? Well it already is. There are around 80,000 visits a year to our 3 nature reserves, and when you factor in those run by Somerset Wildlife Trust and others, there are probably 120,000 or more. On the Avalon Marshes, the Landscape Partnership Scheme is investing £2.7 million over 3 years in training, facilities, apprenticeships and education, with plans for significant further investment in a new Centre. The Great Crane Project is bringing new visitors to places like the Willows & Wetlands Centre. And the much maligned “bird reserve” at Steart - well, through a different lens it is a £30 million investment in the local economy, providing jobs, flood defences for villages, communities, a road and Hinckley’s vital power lines.
So who benefits from this? Well, everyone. Visiting nature watchers fill hotel beds, eat in local cafes and buy local produce in local shops. And if they like the experience, they come back for more, and may bring others.
This is the goldmine that Somerset is sitting on. But there is a frustration amongst many that more is not being done to take advantage of this. As one cafe owner told me, “we need to stop the blame game and sell this place to the wider world – where’s the leadership?”
We need a vibrant, growing, diverse economy that makes the best of Somerset’s wonderful assets, from its farming to its wildlife. Much of this has been captured in a vision for the Levels that was signed recently by a diverse range organisations including NFU, RSPB, local and district councils.
“For the first time, all of the organisations and interests in the Levels and Moors are speaking with a single voice in saying “this is how we want the area to be”.
Miners used canaries in coal mines to tell if the air was healthy to breathe. In the same way, snipe are an indicator of the health of the Somerset Levels. Nature needs people, but more importantly, people need nature.
In the fourth of a series of blogs the RSPB’s Tony Whitehead describes how adapting to climate change can benefit both birds and people
Snipe, like many other birds in the south west may over the next fifty years run out of space. Which is why the “buisness as usual” model of environmental management no longer works. We are going to need to change the way we do things. But as I’ve argued in all these recent blogs this does not mean we need to pit people against the wildlife - the way we adapt can, if we do it intelligently, secure good outcomes for both.
Our climate is changing. We are seeing extreme weather more frequently. And sea levels are rising. On the front line are coastal communities, people around the globe living at sea level. Somerset is one of these front lines, and this has been brought into sharp relief over the past few weeks. We now know what it’s like to live on the very edge.
Whatever your personal views on the causes, one thing is clear - we need to act to ensure coastal and low lying communities are prepared for whatever the future brings. And in some ways the recent floods have revealed how unprepared we are.
In planning we must also consider the whole community and the places they live and work in. We want people to be safe, businesses to be protected. But we also want to consider the problems climate change is bringing to birds and other wildlife in coastal areas and look at ways in which we can help protect them as well. For some commentators and politicians this is incomprehensible, I think because they immediately think that protecting people and protecting wildlife are mutually exclusive, that when the chips are down there have to be sacrifices and this starts with our feathered friends. It’s a dismal view of the world.
A much more civilized view is that we have a duty to do the best we can for people and those many other creatures we share our days with. What’s more - it’s do-able. And there’s an excellent example on the Somerset coast.
The Severn Estuary is a remarkable system. With one of the highest tidal range in the world its rich mud flats are home to internationally important populations of waterbirds, especially in winter.
Water levels around the estuary are predicted to rise significantly over the next century. . With millions of people living on either side of the estuary, well built & maintained sea defences are required. There’s no argument here - you need to provide basic protection. Currently over 200km of coastal defences around the Severn provide more than £5 billion of benefit to over 100,000 homes and businesses.
And here the famous Treasury “funding formula” clearly works - for every pound of taxpayers money that is spent on defences you’ll easily get £8 back in money saved because huge numbers of people and businesses are safe.
But there’s a problem. If you build defences along each side of the estuary you get something called coastal squeeze. If there were no flood banks intertidal habitats would simply move inland as the waters rise. And our waterbirds would still happily have somewhere to feed. But if those waters hit and then start rising up these solid walls, you lose intertidal habitats and the birds have no where to feed. They run out of space.
So to deal with this - on that simple assumption that in a civilized country we want to do our best for both birds and people - you need to find new space for birds to compensate for losses through coastal squeeze.
At the mouth of the River Parrett lies the Steart Peninsula. People who live on the peninsula had been coming under increasing risk because old sea defences were no longer a match for the prevailing conditions, and this was only going to get worse as sea levels continued to rise.
The key problem was that the defences were on the outside of the penisula, and thus consistently bore the full brunt of the tides. Maintaining these would be rather like Canute trying to hold back the tides - more wishful thinking than an efficient use of resources. Millions and millions would be needed, consistently over many many years to build walls stronger and higher. Money that could be put to much better use elsewhere.
Instead, what was proposed by Environment Agency elegantly solved two problems.
Rather than maintaining the existing sea defences, simply move the banks back across the farmland (itself becoming increasingly influenced by saline intrusion) and up close to the main road and the houses. You then allow the land in front of this new bank to revert to low lying salt marsh and intertidal habitat. In doing so much of the energy is taken out of the tide before it reaches the new bank which is thus under much less pressure than the existing one. In fact, the new bank will provide effective efficient flood defence for the good people of Steart, without an additional major spend, for decades.
And in doing this (and you’re probably ahead of me here) you also provide 400ha of intertidal habitat to compensate for losses elsewhere due to coastal squeeze.
What’s more, the creation of these habitats means a brand new Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust nature reserve - with all the benefits this brings, both to people of all ages that want the opportunity to enjoy wildlife and to the local economy. In fact, it’s been estimated that in addition to the huge flood risk benefits, the cash value to the local economy could be as much as £914,000 per annum.
If that wasn’t enough, the development also brings a third benefit. It provides protection for vital electricity pylons delivering power from Hinckley. In this way it could be viewed as of national strategic importance. Also, the final part of the development will provide vital protection for the only road in and out of the village.
With the support of local people – who have been involved closely throughout and have approved the work every step of the way - plus hard work from the Environment Agency and WWT, the realignment of the flood banks is complete and its expected the old sea wall will be breached in September 2014 to allow the waters in. And it’s already working – this winter, despite some of the worst conditions we’ve seen for decades with rain and tidal surges, homes and businesses have been protected. Protected that is by what will soon be a “bird reserve”.
So, next time you’re watching a snipe, perhaps in winter along the reedy fringes of your favourite estuary, just remember that getting things right for our long billed friend can also bring enormous benefits to people and help us all adapt to the dark spectre of climate change.
In the third of a short series of blogs the RSPB’s Tony Whitehead describes why the Somerset Levels are a special place, and why the RSPB wants them to thrive for both wildlife and people.
The Levels are a naturally formed floodplain, but one that has been manipulated over centuries by people. And yet one where people and nature can thrive side by side. And there’s a beauty to it. That a particular sort of farming, cattle grazing, has produced a system that also gives the right conditions for wetland birds such as snipe to thrive. That animals munching and chomping their way across fields creates places for our snipe to feed and nest. That the need for cattle to have extra food when the grass has been eaten produced hay meadows in which curlew and skylark feed and nest.
Many would argue that the Levels is all about water - and you’d be forgiven for thinking this over the past couple of months. But really, you need to take one step back. The Levels is actually about farming. Everything you see that makes the Levels a unique place is derived from the way we’ve farmed the land over centuries.
Without farming, a large proportion of the land would be intertidal - perhaps salt marsh. This “wild” state would not be without its interest for wildlife. And some would say the best thing to do would be to let the area become “wild”, to stop pumping, to leave the rivers to their own accord. But in doing this, I’d argue we’d lose more than we’d gain. You’d get a few more redshank happily breeding on these new marshes for sure, but lose a unique, intriguing and rich landscape, and of course a place in which real people live and work.
That’s not to say there isn’t room for some “un-farmed” land - of course there is. And the harsh realities of climate change may mean some land becomes un-farmable. But our vision is not one where the Levels are “re-wilded” - it’s one where the levels are a farmed wetland. Which is what they’ve been for centuries.
But wait a minute, I hear you say, this picture you’re painting of a landscape in which farmers and wildlife spend their days in idyllic harmony does not bear any relationship to the recent history of the Levels. One in which wildlife is struggling, where bird numbers are falling. In short, you’re talking of some rose tinted past rather than the hard realities of the present.
And that would be fair - to a point. The pump drainage of the moors since 1945, largely for agricultural improvement, has had a serious impact on the Level’s wetland wildlife, and we have seen much greater intensification of farming on the floodplain, accompanied by significant losses of wetland habitat. And this, in turn is driven by a combination of government policy, economics, and technology.
But this land, like any land, has its limits. When the RSPB bought Greylake on King’s Sedgemoor a few years ago it’s fair to say the land we inherited had died. Years of trying to grow crops, including potatoes and carrots, on land that had never been farmed in this way left the soil without structure and seriously degraded. So much so it had actually shrunk by over a foot in height. And it sat there in isolation without connection to the main water courses. This land needed water, and needed to be farmed in the way it had been for generations - it needed to be grazed. Which is what we did - we brought in tenant graziers, and sorted the water levels.
We worked with government agencies and neighbouring farmers to retain and expand areas of wet grassland through ‘raised water level areas’ (RWLAs). Many of these have been in place since the early 1990’s, and much thought has been given to how these areas can operate without penalising Level’s farmers, or increasing flood risk in the wider Levels.
We know how important it is to get water levels right for summer grazing. Although our tenants on Greylake (and indeed on our nearby reserve at West Sedgemoor) need high summer ditch water levels to provide ‘wet fencing’ between fields and irrigation to provide drinking water for livestock, their cattle can’t cope with the ground being too wet, nor can the sward, so we make sure that ditch water levels are just right to allow grazing from about mid-May.
At the same time, we take measures to protect the specialist plants and animals which do well on traditionally-managed moors, and water levels remain slightly higher in these areas than on some of the more intensively-managed ground elsewhere.
Yes, its complex, but the principle is, essentially - retain higher water levels in some places in spring.
We are not alone in doing this - where traditionally-managed pastures and hay meadows still exist on the Levels, Natural England pays farmers to hold these slightly higher spring water levels. In this way, more than £2 million is paid annually to Levels farmers in recognition of the valuable management they do for these extensively-managed grasslands. We know that this is an important source of income to farmers, especially on wetter soils where margins are tight. Put another way - without the snipe this money wouldn’t come to Somerset!
Some of course may interpret this as the RSPB encouraging reduced drainage, or some sort of plan to “re-wild” by stealth. But holding slightly higher water levels in a few areas presents no flood risk to people or infrastructure in the wider floodplain, and doesn’t penalise those farmers outside such schemes.
Also, during the winter, while the guiding principle is lower water levels to allow excess water to drain - rain and floodwater is retained on some moors in order to provide suitable roosting and feeding conditions for the many waterbirds which visit the Levels. The amount of water held in these RWLA pales into insignificance when compared to the sheer volume of rainfall we have witnessed over the past three years. This has given us, EA and the local IDB the confidence that RWLAs aren't making the floods worse.
This is critical to us - the RSPB has no wish to help birds in ways which cause homes and businesses to flood. Throughout, our desire is to work with and not against people’s interests in the Levels. We want the best of all possible worlds.
But do these raised water level areas work? Do the snipe take to them? The answer is an undoubted yes – a quick look at the numbers confirms this. Breeding snipe reached their all time low on the levels in the 90’s with just 30 breeding pairs. Thanks to RWLAs, snipe numbers have increased five-fold and the count last year produced 157 breeding pairs. A remarkable success. And at Greylake, which RSPB bought in 2003, the numbers went from zero to 21 pairs in ten years. The same increases have also been seen in other species too. And none of this has excluded farming in a march back to some mythical “swamp-like” condition, in fact quite the opposite.
Naturally there’s still much to be done. Some RWLA’s work better than others. In some places it’s a struggle to hold water in the fields through May and June due to topography. And in others we might want to leave particularly good places ungrazed while the birds are nesting to avoid trampling – which simply means cutting hay and grazing later. But there are solutions, and the RSPB is a pragmatic organisation – we like practical workable fixes which mean farmers can go about their business of producing food while making space for nature.
Having said all this though – there’s a spectre on the horizon. One that means there may no longer be a “going about our business” as normal. And this has been brought to the fore dramatically over the past few weeks as we’ve watched large parts of the Levels disappear beneath deep water. And it’s this we’ll look at next.