Warning against Defra ‘ditch dredge’ plan

Defra plans allowing farmers to dredge watercourses could increase the risk of flooding further downstream, an expert has claimed.

Proposals allowing farmers to clear ditches, drains and agricultural channels were unveiled by Defra secretary Liz Truss at the Oxford Farming Conference on Tuesday (6 January).

Farmers across the country could be allowed to maintain their own ditches under government plans, which could come into effect as soon as April.

But Alan Jenkins, of the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, said there was potential that the policy could increase flood risk further down the river system.

“Waterlogged fields are no use to farmers,” said Professor Jenkins.

See also: Farmers to get green light to maintain watercourses

“They can’t maintain their productivity on waterlogged soil, so it makes sense for them to manage the field accordingly.

“There is a potential downside, however, in that if we increase drainage in these fields during heavy rainfall, it’s possible there will be increased and faster transmission of water through the river system with a possible increase in flood risk downstream.”

Defra says its investment in flood defences could protect an additional 400,000ha of prime agricultural land from flooding over the decade to 2021.

The proposals would allow farmers to clear debris such as silt from ditches and manmade watercourses without having to first seek permission.

But the Angling Trust said the plan made “no sense”. Stopping rivers flooding fields upstream would only increase the discharge of water downstream, where it would flood homes and businesses, it said.

Angling Trust chief executive Mark Lloyd said dredging to protect farmland was responsible for decimating wildlife in many rivers in the 1960s and 1970s.

He added: “It is unbelievable that the secretary of state for the environment is seeking to go back to those bad old days.”

“Many ‘ditches’ are in fact important fish refuges and wildlife habitats,” said Mr Lloyd.

“Unregulated dredging could do great damage to these ecosystems and the economic benefits to rural communities arising from angling.”