Farmers in western Lancashire are blaming the Environment Agency (EA) for a return of flooding, which is threatening their livelihoods once again.
Heavy rain last week has swamped the drainage system leading into the River Cocker, between Garstang and Cockerham, leaving many farms underwater and essential crops ruined.
One of the worst-affected farms belongs to Adam Sutcliffe, who milks 150 cows, with followers, on 110ha in the village of Winmarleigh,
“It is heartbreaking,” he said. “We were behind already, having had the same fields underwater for three months last year.
“We had grants for reseeding and took a first crop of 140 acres of silage – though it was pretty poor.
“The next cut was ready and we got about 20 acres of it before the rains came and now the remaining 120 acres is underwater again.
I don’t know if the crop is salvageable, but we have to try. The smell is awful – it’s like someone flushed a toilet on half my farm Adam Sutcliffe, farmer
“I reckon we have enough fodder to see us to Christmas, but what will happen after that I don’t know,” he told Farmers Weekly.
“We are currently pumping water out round the clock – it’s costing me £900/day to keep the pumps running, and I have to go out in the middle of the night to fill them up with diesel.
“I don’t know if the crop is salvageable, but we have to try.
“The smell is awful – it’s like someone flushed a toilet on half my farm.”
Mr Sutcliffe says the root cause of the problem is the EA’s decision a few years back to cease maintenance of the ditches.
It has also installed new automatic gates at the entrance to the river Cocker estuary, which are designed to be opened and shut by the tide.
But farmers say the gates are too heavy, get silted up and are blocked by debris on the seaward side, while the field ditches are so choked with weed and algae that they don’t flow out fast enough.
Ted Mitchell, who keep 200 dairy followers on the same plain, says the problems are made worse by all the water that drains off the M6 motorway on the eastern boundary, which adds to the capacity problem.
He too blames EA cuts, which means farmers now have to apply for licences and foot the bill for clearing ditches.
According to NFU county adviser Adam Briggs, the EA prioritises housing and businesses when it comes to flooding, but this does not encompass farmland.
“We have been working with several organisations, including the Country Land & Business Association and the Environment Agency, and local farmers to try and sort it out,” he said.
In particular, he wants to see farmers given permanent licences, so they don’t have to apply separately every time work needs doing, and for farmers to be able to get involved in silt clearing on the seaward side of the gates.
“Also, when work needs doing, we want a situation where everyone shares the cost, rather than just the one farmer who has to do the work.”
The plight of farmers in the area has also drawn political support.
Local Labour MP Cat Smith described the situation as heartbreaking and said environment secretary Andrea Leadsom should “recognise the false economy of the government’s austerity agenda as it risks the livelihoods of local farmers.”
“These farmers need the Environment Agency to undertake the works necessary to ensure that this drainage system is effective, and to maintain the system until long-term local maintenance arrangements can be put in place,” she said.
The EA admitted it prioritises investment where there is greatest risk to people and property.
An EA spokesman said: “In areas where our maintenance investment is changing we work with the local community to explain the changes and the options available to them.
“Environment Agency representatives have met with the community in Cockerham and Winmarleigh to explain the changes to our maintenance programme and have provided advice and guidance on the options available to them for undertaking maintenance.
“Meetings have been well attended by MPs, parish councillors, farmers, the NFU and CLA and Natural England and we are pleased to have supported the community to undertake recent dredging works.”