Farmer seeks EA answers over river maintenance

A farmer is warning other landowners that if they fail to remove overhanging trees and maintain banks along watercourses bordering their land they could be charged by the government for carrying out the work.

Monty Andrew, who farms at Holmes Farm, near Stamford in Lincolnshire, wrote to his local Environment Agency (EA) office for advice on clearing trees along the River Welland, which runs through about a mile of his land.

Mr Andrew explained that there were numerous trees in a “precarious state” which were “pulling the bank down” – and he wanted to find out what could be done ahead of winter in case the damage escalated.

See also: The new water rules for farmers explained

In previous years, Mr Andrew said the EA would usually hire a contractor to remove any overhanging trees or branches from the watercourse to maintain the flow of the river.

However, in response this time, an EA officer sent Mr Andrew an email explaining that for many years the agency and its predecessors “undertook a lot of channel maintenance works that they weren’t obliged to do”.

The officer said this “had given rise to landowner expectations that we’ll continue to do so”. But he added: “We’re now having to remind landowners of the legal position [PDF].”

EA powers

The officer explained that the EA had powers to carry out flood defence works, including channel maintenance, but it was “under no obligation to do so”. Such decisions were guided by “government policy and assessments of flood risk, funding or environmental priorities”.

The officer said he was aware of a hedge growing into the channel downstream of Ketton, which he understood belonged to Mr Andrew. “This should be maintained so that it doesn’t restrict conveyance of the River Chater out of the village,” he added.

The officer also warned Mr Andrew that if he did not complete the work and it was carried out by the EA, he could be charged.

“If we undertake works, we also have the power to re-charge landowners, and given the costs of planning works and engaging a contractor to undertake them – this is likely to be a lot more expensive than if landowners undertake maintenance themselves.”

Lack of awareness

Mr Andrew told Farmers Weekly: “All the farmers I have spoken to are not aware that the onus is on them to cut back any vegetation overhanging a watercourse.

“They [the EA] told me that the only money they have got to spend on the watercourses is what they receive from fishing licences. What are they doing with the drainage rate, then?

“I think this is just another one of these moves from [Defra secretary Michael] Gove to try and get other people to do the work.”

An EA spokesman said: “We prioritise flood maintenance where it will benefit the most people and property, carrying out a full, annual programme of work which we agree with local partners.  

“It’s the landowner’s responsibility to maintain the banks of a watercourse where they have property adjacent to it, although we will take action where there is an immediate risk of flooding.”

Last November, Defra said more farmers could be asked to take over flood-risk maintenance from the EA if more main rivers are reclassified as ordinary watercourses.

Know your rights on watercourse maintenance, NFU advises

If you own property immediately adjacent to a watercourse, as a general rule of law, you own the watercourse up to the mid-point of the channel as part of “riparian rights”.

According to Mhari Barnes, the NFU’s national flood risk and access policy adviser, riparian owners have various rights, ranging from the right to receive water in its natural state and in its natural flow and free from pollution.

“In turn, when you have riparian rights, you have responsibilities. This means ensuring that the watercourse is free from obstruction and a duty of care that the water flows in a natural state,” she said.

However, Dr Barnes said that river maintenance was a “grey area” – and much depended on the size of the river and the level of its flood risk as determined by the Environment Agency (EA).

“If the watercourse on your land is classed as a major river, the powers of maintenance are within the EA’s remit,” she explained. “The EA has historically been responsible for carrying out maintenance on these watercourses.

“However, in recent times, the EA has withdrawn or decreased the amount of maintenance they carry out on rivers. If it is on the ‘owner’s property’ it is less inclined to carry out the maintenance work.”

Dr Barnes advised riparian owners who wished to carry out maintenance work, remove materials, or build anything on banks along watercourses to contact the EA first.

NFU members can also take advantage of a water maintenance guidance package, which offers solutions if the EA has withdrawn maintenance. For more information call NFU Callfirst on 0370 845 8458.