View from the Dales: Farmers are slowing the flow

Helen Keep, senior farm conservation officer at the Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority.
Helen Keep, senior farm conservation officer at the Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority.
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Across the country farmers are increasingly working together for the good of the public as well as their businesses. In the north of England an outstanding example is the work taking place on flood risk management.

The idea is simple: farmers in the hills can take measures to slow down flood waters, both benefitting their businesses and lowering the risk of homes being flooded downstream.

Natural flood management has been around for a very long time, but the fresh, collaborative efforts that are taking shape now have their roots in very recent disasters. The flooding in the winters of 2015 and 2016 caused much anguish in Carlisle, Leeds and York, as well as many millions of pounds worth of damage.

Hill farmers on the frontline of the storms lost livestock and fields to flood water. And yet they, along with the Environment Agency, were targeted in the ensuing blame game. Critics cited lack of investment in flood defence, poor land management practices, lack of woodland and high stocking rates. They had a point.

But it was hard to take if you were a farmer trying to deal with tonnes of river sediment that had been dumped on your productive land. I returned to the office after Storm Desmond knowing that we had serious work to do.

Six of the major rivers that caused the devastation rose in the Yorkshire Dales National Park. How could we, as an authority, help farmers and landowners reduce flood risk?

At the time, Leeds University was conducting groundbreaking research, funded by a partnership we are involved in called The Wensleydale Project. Scientists looked into the potential impact of implementing natural flood management measures in Coverdale, which sits just to the south of Wensleydale.

The research suggested that increasing the ‘roughness’ of vegetation over 10 per cent of the dale, for example by introducing more tree cover, inserting ‘leaky dams’ on fellside sykes, or setting aside rough grass margins, would reduce peak flood levels in the river by 12 per cent. That 12 per cent could be the difference between a home being breached by flood water, or staying dry.

We shared this evidence, along with successful examples of practical flood management, with a group representing farmers and landowners. We demonstrated reducing soil compaction would both decrease run-off and improve grass and root growth.

The response from farmers was overwhelming. They care about their local communities, and want to play their part in reducing the severity of flooding.

Each main dale of the National Park now has a formally-constituted group of farmers and landowners, which is sharing ideas on reducing flood risk.

The ambition of each group is to achieve a landscape-scale solution. Alongside this, we have worked with partners including Natural England, the Yorkshire Dales Rivers Trust, North Yorkshire County Council and the Environment Agency to produce a free, practical guidebook for farmers on natural flood management measures, to be published next week.

Natural flood management isn’t a silver bullet which will solve flooding downstream but it has benefits to the farm business, water quality and reducing flood risk. It can be a genuine win-win, for farmers and the wider community.

Helen Keep is a senior farm conservation officer at the Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority.