Scientists have now identified a cause of the extreme rainfall which has pushed our flood defences to the limit. Michael Hickling meets the people trying to stem the deluge.
The larger good is best served by many small measures. The Yorkshire Dales Rivers Trust is putting that notion into practice and the volunteers who are doing the hard work were on the scene well before David Cameron came up with his idea of a Big Society.
We meet on what has become a typical late September day – early torrential rain followed by grey skies – in the square at Middleham just as strings of racehorses are heading up the hill for a session on the town moor gallops.
Nick Buck, a retired vet who is the secretary of the trust, wants to show what has been achieved on the River Cover, 22 kilometres of joy for fly fishermen and nature lovers alike, which flows into the River Ure just south of here.
The trust has the job of looking after the ecological condition of the river water which is great for the visitors who come to enjoy it. But this work is also of some importance for the many who are strangers to the Cover’s charms – its brown trout, grayling and salmon and the lovely sylvan views from its picturesque stone bridges.
Many people downstream from Dales rivers are now alarmed by the threat from flooding. The Cover eventually flows into the Ouse, which on the last Tuesday of September rose with record speed and threatened to breach York’s flood defences during the course of the next three days.
Steps can be taken in places like Coverdale to reduce the speed with which rainfall reaches rivers on high ground and this part of the work of the trust’s volunteers addresses this issue.
As for the drenchings from the skies, we’re helpless. Britain lies in the path of unstoppable meteorological events.
These come in the shape of another type of river entirely – an “atmospheric river” of the skies.
Atmospheric rivers that move in the lower troposphere have been known about for years. At any one time there are four or five, some 300 miles wide, carrying prodigious amounts of moisture that has evaporated in the tropics towards the poles.
It seems greater evaporation due to global warming makes it more likely that one of the atmospheric rivers carrying moisture northwards from the warm Atlantic off Portugal will dump its load on us more often.
The Natural Environment Research Council commissioned scientists at Reading University to map the movement of moist air masses. And they have linked our recent winter floods with an atmospheric river overhead.
As we climb into Nick Buck’s Subaru at Middleham, the floods downriver on the Ouse are four days away. Travelling with us is the YDRT’s new chairman Deborah Millward who is a trained ecologist and Ann Newstead, a locally-based events officer for the Council for the Protection of Rural England.
A short drive above Middleham and a walk down a steep inclines brings us to a four-acre belt of trees. Low Wood was a larch and sycamore plantation where most had reached maturity and were felled for timber. The trust is now planting 900 all-native species trees.
What has this got to do with rivers? Everything, it seems.
“A lot of the Dales soil is very compacted,” says Nick. “We are interested in maintaining the woodland because the trees are so good at reconnecting surface water to ground water.
“They slow down the speed at which the water gets into the river – makes it less “spatey” – and more of a regular flow.
“Here there was hardly any vegetation which was shrouded out by the trees and it was therefore very cold for any fauna. As the wood begins to mature, nature will volunteer species.”
They are taking the long view at this spot but other aspects of their work have had an almost instant impact. At the top of this hill lies the artificial Pinker’s Pond where, ten years ago, the water abruptly disappeared. It had been built as a manageable source of water for livestock and years of hand-wringing followed as people discussed what to do.
Ultimately a decision made by a committee of two – Nick and Deborah – to pay for a new drainage system and now the pond is properly swampy again, a home for amphibians, geese and ducks and a magnet for wading birds. Deborah says, “It’s one of the most gratifying things we’ve ever done.”
At Low Wood on the Agglethorpe estate we stop to inspect the 800 trees that have been planted, many by volunteers recruited from beaters from the local game shoot.
Later Nick takes a turning off the main road to Swine Side bank, a dead-end at the back of beyond and there’s a brief debate amoung the Subaru’s occupants whether to call it Swine Side, or “Swinnerside” as the locals do.
It seems fair to guess that few people come to this remote spot. The guess is wrong. We park up beside a big stone farmhouse at the end of the track which has a “for sale” sign outside. Nick says the owner is a Leeds pop star of Mick Jagger vintage (he can’t remember his name).
Next door, a small orange windsock flapping in the chill breeze indicates that this owner arrives by helicopter. Probably a Swine Sider then.
Here on this bleak hillside leading down to the River Cover, 2,000 trees (1,200 of them given by the Woodland Trust) were planted last December by National Trust volunteers on the land of farmer Roger Clutterbuck. The Rivers Trust selected the site, negotiated the package and pulled it all together.
We’re at the moorland edge, a great habitat for the rare black grouse where the slope makes an arena for their courtship rituals or “lekkings”. The trust works on the provision of black grouse habitat by planting the shrubs and trees they like.
But not a great place for livestock in the winter. Roger Clutterbuck uses the land mostly as summer grazing for the suckler cows he keeps at Bedale.
Does the trust find farmers accommodating when they approach them with a project on their land? “When you sit round the table one-to-one, most farmers are willing to co-operate,” says Nick. It helps that most of them know him from his days as a vet.
It can be tricky because what is good for spreading on the land can be inimical to top quality river water. So the trust works with farmers about reducing their nutrient input. Deborah takes a practical view of this role. “We are able to advise on how much fertiliser will need so they are not overloading the soil, basically saving them money.”
The trust started in 2004 because a new approach was needed. Those tumbling upland streams which seemed so perfect were no longer as good as they looked.
“Dales rivers were considered pristine,” says Nick. “But from a wildlife point of view they had declined dramatically. For example fly rise – clouds of insects over the rivers – now don’t happen anymore.”
A large cause of this was a misguided national strategy at a time when food production was everything and there was a push to bring marginal areas into play. Grants were given for draining moorland and thousands of kilometres of land drains, or grips, went in with a view to improving grazing so that the moors could carry more sheep.
Today the environmental damage from grips has become acute. The areas around them have become severely eroded and the rainwater comes off the hills so quickly it flushes everything out. It has taken a long time for rivers to recover.
Aware of the growing threat to livelihoods and habitats, farmers, landowners and conservationists met at the King’s Head pub in in Masham in 2004 and the YDRT was formed. Today it still has only 150 subscribing members. About 65 per cent are anglers and they also have one of Yorkshire’s top brewers as a subscriber. Brewers have a particular interest in maintaining a top quality water source.
But, according to Nick Buck, the trust lives a hand-to-mouth existence. There’s some support from the Environment Agency who finance the salary of the first full-time member of staff, and from the Millennium Trust. So far they have spent some £33,000 in their Coverdale project at twelve sites with £22,000 coming from the CPRE and more from a Masham quarry operator, Lafarge Aggregates.
It’s one of 40 river trusts in England and Wales, non-governmental organisations whose volunteers deliver grassroots conservation measures.
Some do very nicely. “One in the south west is funded by South West Water and is very effective. Yorkshire Water turned a deaf ear to us,” says Nick.
At Horsehouse we inspect an eroding bank which has been tackled by willow spiling – driving in stakes and weaving slender branches between them. Volunteers have completed 100 metres since April, most of them recruited by word of mouth. What do they get out of it? “I have a little group of folk who want to come out and do good in the countryside,” says Deborah. “They enjoy their day out.
“Willow spiling means great fun poking around in the mud without looking a fool. And if you get locals involved in the work, they’ll look after it.”