Farm Of The Week: River that’s causing flood of problems

MILK is enough of a worry, and that is John Dickinson’s business. But today, we are talking mainly about water.

These pages have touched on his problems with the River Idle before. And there must be other farmers suffering from decisions similar to those which turned the Idle back from a maintained drain into an unpredictable little natural beast.

Like Mr Dickinson, they probably find it difficult to pin down who made those decisions and on what grounds. The Yorkshire Post has found it difficult too. But perhaps we can stir some memories – and some debate.

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Manor Farm, at Scaftworth, near Bawtry, is just on the North Notts. side of the Idle but its 380 acres stretch into South Yorkshire and flooding of recent years has been a problem for both sides over several miles.

Mr Dickinson moved there from Thursltone, near Penistone, in 1990. At the time, the land had been flood-free for some years, thanks to an expensive investment by the Trent River Authority – heavily supported by European grants, according to local recollection – on the basis that it would make waste land agriculturally useful.

The Retford Times reported in 1981: “Farmers’ fears of major flooding from the River Idle have been eased with the opening of a new pumping station at West Stockwith. The £2m station is part of a £4.7m drainage scheme designed to protect thousands of acres of farmland. It is anticipated this greater protection of 22,000 acres of farmland will encourage increased food production.”

A couple of million pounds bought a lot of engineering back in 1981 and the West Stockwith station was and remains a mighty tool, capable of hurling the Idle into the Trent even at high tide and even when it was dredged and cleared of vegetation to achieve maximum flow.

A section of the river was cleared every year and it flooded enough to cause damage just once in the 20 years after the Idle flood protection work was completed. But at some point, the maintenance stopped.

According to Mr Dickinson, who has talked many times to the staff involved, the pumping station now operates at a fraction of capacity. It has four big pumps. But one is enough to deal with the Idle as it is now, silted and slow.

When we visit, he has been pumping water off 140 acres of his main pastures for more than two weeks – at the cost of 200 litres of diesel a day, on top of the pump hire – in an attempt to save the grass. It is the third time in five years he has had to take cattle back indoors during the grazing season and feed them on forage meant for winter.

“It’s bad enough for me but being a tenant, at least I don’t have to worry about the effect on the value of the land,” he says.

“People have bought land along here and invested in riverside land to bring it into production on the understanding that we would not be flooded more than one year in 10. Now the river over-tops around 10 times a year.

“It’s such a waste of good land, it’s a sacrilege. And it wipes out a lot of the riverside wildlife which somebody is always turning up to count.

“The Environment Agency says it is tied by Natural England or Defra. Natural England says it’s up to the Environment Agency. And there are thousands of them to pass the buck between.”

In 2010, an Environment Agency engineer swore to the Yorkshire Post that they had changed nothing in their management of the Idle. But the Environment Agency was only born in 1996. Two weeks ago, the agency said: “In the case of the River Idle (Bawtry), dredging and vegetation removal would not alleviate flood risk as this land sits in the flood plain.”

But clearly, dredging together with pumping at West Stockwith did make a difference. And the government once thought it was a difference worth paying for.

One of Mr Dickinson’s neighbours is Pollybell Organics, a big vegetable grower on both sides of the Idle. Its manager, Peter Cornish, sits on the Isle of Axholme and North Notts. Water Level Management Board, which has absorbed the Ryton and Idle Drainage Board.

He says Mr Dickinson is quite right but the Environment Agency has farmers arguing in one ear and Natural England – created in 2006 – in the other.

Mr Cornish said this week: “We haven’t had flooding from the Idle this year but we have had in recent years. The trouble is the pressure from Natural England to create wetlands. It would actually be cheaper to pump water where they want it.”

In the time we gave them this week, Natural England could not get to the bottom of its involvement. The Environment Agency said: “The agency looked in some detail at the benefits of dredging on the River Idle. In general terms, the gradient is so flat there isn’t much that can be done to speed normal flows. The Isle of Axholme strategy was subject to a long period of public consultation.”

Mr Dickinson does not recall being consulted. However, he does have some blessings to count.

In 2006, fed up with the measly margins in mainstream milk production, he traded in his black-and-whites for a herd of Jerseys and started selling to Longley Farm, the Holmfirth business which has carved out a niche for gold-top cream and butter – and for what Mr Dickinson and wife Susan reckon “without doubt the best cottage cheese in the country”. Longley Farm is run by a Dickinson family too, but they are not related.

“I have never regretted the change,” says Scaftworth’s Mr Dickinson. His 220 milkers average 5,600 litres in a year, compared with 9,000 or 10,000 or more from top Holsteins. But they also exceed a 10 per cent solids target, compared with a more usual 3.9. And for that he gets 8p-10p over the standard rate for what Jersey men call ‘white water’ – and better AI results, easy calving, a longer outdoor grazing season and more lactations from every animal. Some of his 2006 buys are still calving. He has become a director of the breed society and will be judging the Jerseys at Otley Show next week.

Susan helps rear the calves. Mr Dickinson, son Tom and a student on attachment – from Reeseheath College in Cheshire – look after the milkers and grow enough grass, lucerne, maize and fodder beet, to provide most of the winter feed needs.

Apart from the milk, and most of the feed for the herd, they produce 6,000 tonnes of potatoes for Walkers, in a collaboration with a neighbour. A daughter, Anna, lives at home but works for Semex, the AI specialists. She shows a few Jerseys at the Great Yorkshire Show.