Somerset Flooding (Again)

Flooding The flooding in the Somerset Levels is a serious issue which won’t go away. I was writing about it this time last year. Even if you don’t believe in global warming, there’s not much denying the weather is changing. We are getting more rain here and it’s falling quicker. The rainfall in December and January has been unprecedented. This is not just one village that’s under water, and it’s not just under water for a few days. There are A roads in the Levels which were under water for months in 2013. Farmland is becoming permanently unusable. Sticking some pumps in or ringing the Marines isn’t going to help. Nor is Owen Paterson. What is needed is the formulation and delivery of a long term strategic plan, not knee jerk populism.

The local MP blames the floods on not dredging the Parrett and the Tone. The Environment Agency blames government cutbacks and conservationists. George Monbiot blames the hill farmers. Meanwhile, in completely unconnected news, Owen Paterson announces a 41% cut in the budget for domestic initiatives to deal with climate change, with no apparent irony.

Somerset flooding didn’t used to be the stuff of headlines – it’s why the county is called Somerset. It’s why Alfred the Great hung out here and why archaeologists get excited about Bronze Age finds like the Sweet Track. Glastonbury Tor used to be an island in a sea of salt water for much of the year. “Used to be”. Most of the Levels were subject to extensive drainage and dredging schemes and stopped flooding many years ago, to the extent that Environment Agency described last year’s floods as a “once in a 100 year event”. It clearly wasn’t. In any case, they can’t afford to say anything different.*

Changing weather patterns mean we have a simple choice to make; do we want to keep the Levels inhabited or not? Either way, we need to have a long term plan and the money to action it, and now. Start thinking about managing areas for wildlife and paying compensation to their previous owners, and/or using more natural and cost-effective flood prevention measures like catchment restoration.

There are plenty of other environmental issues which also need decisive, well informed action before they cost us as much as RBS. Land use, large infrastructure projects (Heathrow, HS2), renewable power, the marine environment, freshwater quality, high intensity farming, etc. etc. Our political elite – of all parties – seems completely ill-equipped to deal with these difficult but vitally important issues. Successive administrations procrastinate, cave in to populist opinion or aggressive commercial lobbying, or just reverse earlier policy initiatives.

While everyone continues to dither, thank goodness we live half way up a hill at the other end of the county.

*Middlezoy is not Holland Park. There’s no way that the good people of W8 would have been sloshing about in their waders for 6 months. It’s all very well saying that if you live on a flood plain you’ve got it coming to you; does that apply to anyone living in the Thames basin behind the flood barrier? As things stand The Environment Agency – and we as a country – just don’t have the resources to be anything other than be hugely selective about who or what they save from extreme weather. This is wildly divisive and will be more and more so.

Wet Wet… and Still Wet

Much of the Somerset Levels, an hour west of us, is still under water. This video was taken in late November down the road from Burrow Hill, where the lovely Somerset Distillery is based:

Three weeks later there’s a sorry mess of abandoned cars and floating hay bales in a scene more like a post-apocalyptic disaster movie than rural England:

It’s not making news, but that doesn’t make the plight of the folk down there any better. This is an A Road that’s flooded, between Taunton and Glastonbury, and it means a 15 mile detour around the mess that was the River Parrett. Better a mess here than in downstream Bridgwater, I suppose. The Environment Agency estimate there are 43 million tonnes of water currently lying on the levels, which sounds like a lot to me. They reckon the road will be closed until after Christmas – at least. It was closed in May as well.

Somerset LevelsWhat’s to be done? Of course the Levels have always been liable to flooding, but in recent history we’ve felt we’ve been able to control that. In earlier years Sumorsaete was, literally, the land of the summer people, and parts of the county abandoned to the water in winter. After hundreds of years’ work I can’t imagine there are any more flood prevention schemes that can be introduced, even if we could afford them. The more extreme weather events we are seeing are showing no signs of mitigating. Sea levels will rise. The farmers are all going bust and their fields and houses are unsaleable. When will government start to face the reality of global warming that’s staring the Burrowbridge locals in the face, and start thinking the unthinkable about land use in these areas? Could we pay for land to be added to the astonishing – and valuable – wildlife reserves already in the area, for example? Things can’t go on as they are.


Goat Willow
Goat Willow - and Honeybee
We’re not that far from the Levels, but it seems like a strange and different land whenever we venture down there, particularly in the winter. Last time we went was to order some baskets from P.H.Coate (established 1819), who also have a visitor centre at their HQ. They sell all sorts of high quality kit, from charcoal to coffins to creels; we’ve always been delighted with what we’ve bought there. They also have live cuttings and whips, but for these I think I’ll go to West Wales Willows in future , who have a fantastic choice ( with names that sound like Perry Pears – Black Maul, Flanders Red, and Fanny’s White, for example) – and lots of helpful advice. I recently put a mildly interested client in touch with them who promptly bought 150 cuttings. Whether you’re interested in biomass production (I really really should be), flower arranging, ornament, basketry, windbreaks, or early nectar, there’s a Willow – or more accurately several – out there for you…