Catastrophic flood damage on the Somerset Levels has left farmers facing up to another year of six-figure financial losses.
Farmers in low-lying areas were only just getting their businesses back on track after devastating floods crippled the region in the spring and autumn of 2012.
But weeks of heavy rainfall during the Christmas period and in the new year left many thousands of acres under water – and farmers braced for yet another year of huge financial turmoil.
James Winslade, farmer-owner of West Yeo Farm and Newhouse Farm in Moorland, Bridgwater, said about 94% of his farmland – 320ha of farmland out of a total 340ha – is under water.
Much of the 28ha of land devoted to Higher Level Stewardship is flooded, threatening wildlife habitats. And the herd of 550 beef cattle has been “bunched up” in sheds.
“Last year, we lost in excess of £160,000 due to the floods. A lot of people in our area have lost that and more,” he said.
“We spent £11,000 reseeding grassland in 2013 and getting the farm back on course. But we are flooded out again and we are back in the same situation. It’s so disheartening.
“I’m a third-generation farmer and the family has been farming here for 150 years, but we have never had anything like this before. It’s two years in a row now. Something has got to be done. We can’t sustain local businesses.”
Farmers and farm leaders are concerned that the government is concentrating its efforts on capital spending and flood defence schemes in urban areas at the expense of farmers.
Further spending cuts mean the Environment Agency is expected to axe 1,100 jobs during the next 12 months and farmers feel the situation will only get worse.
Mr Winslade said the Environment Agency had “sacrificed the needs of farmers to save populated towns”.
“The rivers are silted up between 42 and 50%. The last time they did maintenance on the rivers was more than 20 years ago,” he added.
“They keep going on about a flood defence scheme, but it doesn’t make a blind bit of difference if the rivers can’t take the water away. The water is going to just keep rising. We have got to clean the rivers out to let this water get out to sea.”
According to Somerset County Council, the flooding in 2012 cost farmers and local businesses on the Curry and North Moors an estimated £10m. That figure is set to rise rapidly following the latest round of floods.
(Read more about a partnership fund to tackle flooding in Somerset.)
“It would cost about £3-4m to clean the Rivers Parrett and Tone, but now the Environment Agency say they haven’t got any money,” said Mr Winslade.
Dairy farmer Anthony Gothard said 101ha of grassland were under water on the family farm in Stoke St Gregory, Taunton. Floodwaters are up to 5m deep in places.
“It’s going to be another month before we can get any water off. It’s the same problem – the rivers will not drop as the capacity isn’t there,” he said.
“It’s too early to say what the effect will be, but we’re hoping it won’t be as damaging as last year.”
Ian Johnson, NFU south-west spokesman, said: “The farming community is very good at rallying around, but what farmers can’t cope with is fields under water.
“Flooding is supposed to be a one-in-100-year event, but this is the second serious flood in 14 months. Some businesses haven’t recovered since last time. It’s a huge problem and scores – if not hundreds – of farmers are affected.”
Following a mini flood summit on Wednesday (15 January), Somerset County Council announced a further boost of £500,000 for river dredging and flood prevention schemes, bringing its total funding for flood prevention to £1m.
The council called on the government and the Environment Agency to dig into its own pockets and find a further £3m to enable a comprehensive dredging operation for the Rivers Parrett and Tone.
An Environment Agency spokesman said: “The tidal nature of the majority of the rivers on Somerset Levels means they rapidly silt up and de-silting would not be effective in reducing flood risk. On non-tidal rivers such as the Parrett and the Tone we have been carrying out de-silting at key locations.
“Our staff have been on the Somerset Levels for the duration of the flooding and will remain there operating pumping equipment; we have also brought in additional mobile pumps and operational staff from around the country to assist.”
Work started in November on the desilting of “pinch points” on the River Tone, working towards the River Parrett to maintain river flows, he added.
“This is an interim step to maximise the capacity of the existing system while the feasibility of longer-term approaches are explored with partner organisations.”
(Watch a video of tenant farmer Terry Moore’s flooding nightmare in Oxfordshire )