Battle to save land when a river runs through it

More than most, Heber Farm at Buckden, in Upper Wharfedale, is at the mercy of water, and the torrential rainfall that can strike this part of Yorkshire.

Some of the low lying areas on Gary Schofield's farm border the river and on occasions become part of it.

"Historically the River Wharfe is one of the highest spating rivers in the country," says Mr Schofield, who farms 900 acres, of which 120 acres is vital meadow which he uses for tupping and lambing. All of that 120 acres is within four or five feet of the normal river level.

"So every time the river comes up, if it wasn't for the flood defences, it would flood all the 120 acres. If we have to move sheep and lambs out of a flooded area in the middle of the night, it's just a complete disaster," he says.

Heber Farm, which he rents from the National Trust, is at the heart of a nationwide project by the Trust to use less water and manage water on its land, so it does less harm both to its own properties and to land further downstream.

The Trust owns nine farms in this part of the Yorkshire Dales, and it is encouraging all of them to take measures to better manage the speed at which water leaves the moors and goes into the River Wharfe.

"It's the silt which is coming out of the gills which is the biggest problem," says Mr Schofield, referring to the mixture of peat and rubble which forms what he calls a 'natural bung' at Starbottom, a mile downstream. This stops the water flowing away and turns his pasture into an unusable lake.

"In the 15 years that we've lived here, it has lifted the whole river bed by two or three feet, whilst the level of the surrounding land has stayed the same, leading to more frequent floods in lesser storms."

Starting in 2001, the Trust invested in repairs to the river bank where it had been washed away and also worked with tenants further upstream to start blocking up the 'grips' dug out on the moors in the 1950s and 1960s, to assist drainage and encourage more grass. Now the emphasis has changed to slowing the rate at which rainwater runs into the rivers.

Where the Trust owns the land, it can return it to its original sponginess. But other landowners may well be less keen. Blocking the grips can mean a measurable loss of income.

Mr Schofield sums up: "The more bog, the less grass, basically. They won't be able to keep the same number of sheep and they'll have a shorter grazing season."

One solution proposed by Natural England is to pay farmers for contributions to flood prevention and water quality. Filling in the grips and living with the consequences is one way they might qualify for future grants.

And there is an example of another possible way being tried out on Heber Farm

The farm has a very steep gill running down from Buckden Pike, straight into the river. Much of the land on the banks of the gill has been de-stocked and planted with trees.

"That slows down the water and stops the erosion of the valley sides. The water flowing into the river is a lot cleaner, there's less sediment."

The National Trust paid for the tree planting. Mr Schofield's contribution was some of his grazing land, but he was able to claim some subsidy to reduce stocking. Anyway, he says: "I couldn't see that losing five or six acres of rough grazing was going to be a big problem economically when if nothing was done, the whole lot would be harder to farm."

Martin Davies, property manager for the National Trust in Upper Wharfedale, says it has spent hundreds of thousands of pounds on measures like these because the trust believes that controlling water is vital to the future of the countryside it manages.

But there are still lessons to be learned.

"We don't have as much spate as we did have, but we still get flooded out, and when the bad ones come we get flooded out worse," sums up Mr Schofield. There is less silt in the water and it normally runs lower, thanks to the work done so far.

But because it is flowing more freely, it brings more trash with it – which takes fencing with it – when it is really roaring, and that creates new temporary bungs. The Trust is considering more earthworks to channel the flooding when it does occur.

Gary Schofield is unusual in not having a farming background. His mother is a teacher, and his father a civil engineer. He grew up in Darlington. He's been at Heber Farm for 15 years and has a wife, Gillian, and two children.

He runs a few beef cattle as well as his sheep, including a couple of Highland Cattle which he first bought as a living advertising hoarding to attract the visitor's eye to his farm.

He recently started selling a small part of his beef production direct to the public from his freezer. Selling directly doubles the value of the meat, he reckons.

Despite the problems of the location, he counts his blessings. "I'm very lucky to be on a farm at all with my background," he says.

"It is a beautiful place to live, and the kids love it here. The living isn't brilliant, but that's my choice isn't it?"