7 January 2000

Floods could have been prevented, say Somerset farmers

By FW reporters

ENVIRONMENT agency officials could have done more to prevent floods which have engulfed hundreds of acres of Somerset farmland, producers are claiming.

Fields on the Somerset Levels north-east of Taunton are likely to remain submerged for weeks after heavy rainfall during the festive season and further heavy falls predicted as farmers weekly went to press. Earlier this week, pumps were working flat out to remove millions of gallons of water.

But farmers who say the floods are the worst since the 1960s believe the catastrophe could have been prevented. Stuart Gothard, who farms at Stoke St Gregory, near Taunton, said too little money had been spent on maintaining riverbanks. He said: "Neglect or shortage of money has caused rivers to silt up in some places by up to one-third."

The agencys Richard Symonds acknowledged the situation was so bad that it would be impossible to farm much of the land for some time.

"It will take weeks for parts of the Somerset Levels to drain to their usual state," he said, although most banks and defence schemes performed well. "We are now working at full speed on emergency repairs so that Somersets historic flood defences can cope with any further pressure."

Dairy farmer David Hubbart, whose grassland floods regularly, but normally not to such a depth as this year, says his main concern is the risk of grass kill if temperatures rise enough to start it into growth before all the water has been pumped away.

He also notes that the deep flooding is not providing the correct conditions for wading birds to feed in either. And as the area has special EU conservation status for those birds, the government could be challenged by the EU for failing to manage the area properly. If the main purpose of flooding parts of the area is to protect urban areas from flooding, then compensation should be payable to landowners or occupiers for the service they are providing, he adds.

That view is shared by Richard Bradford, conservation officer for English Nature in Somerset. "The irony is that at present the water is too deep to suit the majority of the interest in the Moors. There needs to be greater recognition by urban dwellers of the need for flood water storage and who is providing it. There should be some payment for that service. English Nature has put that view to MAFF and the Environment Agency." It might be done as part of an extended Environmentally Sensitive Area scheme, he suggests.

RSPB spokesman Peter Exley also agrees changes are needed to ensure the combined objectives are achieved: "Protecting property from flooding, encouraging the right sort of farming, and conservation". It is important for all parties to work together, he says, to find the best way forward in the EAs major review of its flood defence schemes in the area. &#42