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Consensus on Somerset Levels' future will underpin action on flooding

Last modified: 03 February 2014

Ditch at West Sedgemoor RSPB reserve, Somerset Levels, England

Image: David Kjaer

The following has been issued by the Somerset Levels and Moors Task Force ...

A ‘Vision’ of what the Somerset Levels and Moors might look like in 2030, intended to guide water and land management policies over the years ahead, has been agreed by a Task Force set up last year to address the area’s problems.

The Task Force includes representatives of farming, conservation, local authorities and Government agencies.  It was set up at the suggestion of former Defra environment minister, Richard Benyon, in the wake of the floods of 2012/13, which coincided with the ending of many of the conservation agreements which have protected the area for the past 28 years.

Acting Chairman of the Task Force, Anthony Gibson, said that agreement on the Vision was a crucial first step in tackling the Levels’ problems.

“We now know where we want to go, and that ought to give a very clear sense of direction not only to the 20 year action plan for reducing the flood risk, on which we are just embarking, but all the other policies which impinge on this very special, but very threatened area.

“The really encouraging thing is the degree of consensus which the Vision represents. We all want the Levels’ landscape to remain the green grid-iron of withies, rhynes, meadows and droves that we know and love; we all want it to continue to be farmed productively, but in ways that enhance the nature conservation interest; we all want the water to be managed, so that the flood risk is reduced; we all want an even richer mix of wildlife than we’ve got already; and we all want a thriving local economy, built around the Levels’ special qualities.

“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”.  The combination of the Vision and the 20 year action plan to deal with flooding does give us a priceless opportunity to get things right, for the Levels, its people, its farmers and its wildlife.”

Agreement on the Vision has been welcomed by both farming and conservation interests.

For the NFU, South West Regional Director, Mel Squires, said: “Farmers are at the heart of the Levels’ future, and will welcome this clear, positive statement of what we are all trying to achieve.  True partnership with them must be the way forward, and we will continue to represent their interests with this collaborative action which will be necessary to turn the vision into reality.”

For the RSPB, South West Regional Director, Tony Richardson, said: “ This new and exciting vision recognises the quality of the Somerset Levels’ natural environment and places it as central to a better future for people, the economy of the area and of course nature. The RSPB agrees wholeheartedly and calls on others to join in a big push for this better way forward.”

Having agreed the Vision, the Task Force’s next challenge is to put in place the actions necessary to bring it to fruition.  Some of that - like dredging the rivers or a tailor-made agri-environment scheme - will be top down; but a lot of it will be bottom up - creating frameworks to enable local communities to shape their own destinies.

The Vision was drawn up after an initial consultation exercise carried out last summer.  A draft was then produced, which was sent to every parish council in the Levels and Moors, and to all members of the Somerset Water Management Partnership, which represents a very wide cross-section of organisations, local authorities and interests, for comment.  The final version was agreed at a meeting of the Task Force on Friday.

The full text of the vision is as follows:

A Vision for the Somerset Levels and Moors in 2030

We see the Somerset Levels and Moors in 2030 as a thriving, nature-rich wetland landscape, with grassland farming taking place on the majority of the land.  The impact of extreme weather events is being reduced by land and water management in both the upper catchments and the flood plain and by greater community resilience.

1. The landscape remains one of open pasture land divided by a matrix of ditches and rhynes, often bordered by willow trees. Extensively managed wet grassland dominates the scene with the majority of the area in agriculture in 2010 still being farmed in 2030.

2. The floodplains are managed to accommodate winter flooding whilst reducing flood risk elsewhere. These flood events are widely recognised as part of the special character of the Levels and Moors.

3. The frequency and duration of severe flooding has been reduced, with a commensurate reduction in the flood risk to homes, businesses and major roads in the area.

4. During the summer months there is an adequate supply and circulation of high quality irrigation water to meet the needs of the farmers and wildlife in the wetlands. On the low-lying peat moors, water levels have been adopted which conserve peat soils and avoid the loss of carbon to the atmosphere. Water quality has improved and meets all EU requirements.

5. The Levels and Moors are regarded as one of the great natural spectacles in the UK and Europe with a mix of diverse and valuable habitats. Previously fragmented habitats such as fen and flower-rich meadows have been re-connected  and are widely distributed. In the north of the area over 1,600 ha are managed as reed-bed, open water and bog. Elsewhere the populations of breeding waders exceed 800 pairs. Each winter the wetlands attract large numbers of wintering wildfowl and waders regularly exceeding 130,000 birds. Wetland species such as Crane, Bittern and pollinator populations flourish.

6. Optimum use is being made of the agricultural potential of the Levels and Moors, particularly on the higher land, whilst unsustainable farming practices have been adapted or replaced to secure a robust, sustainable base to the local economy

7. New businesses, including those based on ‘green tourism’, have developed, meeting the needs of local people and visitors alike, while brands based on the area’s special qualities are helping farmers to add value to the meat, milk and other goods and services that they produce.

8. The internationally important archaeological and historic heritage of the area is protected from threats to its survival and is justly celebrated, providing a draw to visitors and a source of pride and identity to local communities.

9. Farmers and landowners are rewarded financially for the public benefits and ecosystem services they provide by their land management including flood risk management, coastal management, carbon storage and the natural environment.

Somerset Levels and Moors Task Force January 31, 2014

The Task force consists of representatives from Somerset County Council, Somerset District Councils, NFU, Somerset Wildlife Trust, Somerset Consortium of Drainage Boards, FWAG and RSPB


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