East Devon floods: Farmers helping to reduce the risks

PUBLISHED: 17:08 23 September 2009 | UPDATED: 00:15 16 June 2010

The Environment Agency and its partners on the East Devon Flood Recovery Group are teaming up with farmers to reduce the risk of flooding to homes and other properties in East Devon.

The Environment Agency and its partners on the East Devon Flood Recovery Group are teaming up with farmers to reduce the risk of flooding to homes and other properties in East Devon.

Over 350 properties in 30 towns and villages were flooded on 29/30 October 2008. More than 80 per cent were not flooded by the main rivers that pass through the area, but by small streams or by surface water run-off.

Since then, the Environment Agency has carried out extensive research that has demonstrated that the way land was managed was one of the factors contributing to the high level of run-off and worked with farmers, East Devon District Council and Devon County Council to find a solution.

This work could reduce the risk of flooding to hundreds of people and properties in East Devon.

The main land management problem is soil compaction. This happens when wet soil is compressed, especially by the weight of machinery or livestock. When soil is compacted it becomes sealed making it almost impossible for the soil to absorb rainwater, causing surface water to run off.

During the East Devon floods, as much as 177 millimetres of rain fell on Ottery St Mary and the surrounding area in just three hours. This was one of the most intense rainfalls in Britain in the last 50 years. Our data shows it was 159 per cent of the average monthly rainfall for the area.

When this much water falls onto compacted land, flash flooding is inevitable. It's made even worse if the farmland is on a steep slope above a town or village. This is the reality in many parts of East Devon.

Richard Smith, the Land Quality Officer from the Environment Agency who has led the soils research, said: 'When in good condition, well drained soil can absorb huge quantities of rainwater. Our work has shown that an open loose soil structure can absorb 50 millimetres of rain per hour, but a hard compacted soil can shed up to 90 per cent as surface water run-off. This problem is widespread in East Devon.'

Richard has been working with farmers to help them to recognise problems related to soil compaction and drainage and to improve their soils.

For example, farmers can break up their land following harvest to remove compaction. But this can only be done if the soil is not wet. Last year's relentless wet weather made this very difficult.

When presented with evidence of a problem, many farmers have been quick to tackle the problem.

Farmers in Feniton have recently been using a sub-soiler to break up compacted soil.

The most common cause of flooding is river flooding, coastal flooding caused by high tides and stormy conditions, or surface water flooding when drainage capacity is overwhelmed or sewers are blocked.

Melanie Hall, Regional Director for the National Farmers Union in the South West, said: 'We welcome the Environment Agency working with farmers to manage the risks of flooding through land management where practical.

'Farmers are the first to recognise the importance of soils not least to their own business viability, be it cropping or for livestock production. But we cannot ignore the extreme weather patterns, the natural topography and rolling hills of Devon and the subsequent derogation agreed by Government to carry out field operations to ensure crops were harvested and planted, and food production maintained as a result.

'This will remain an ever growing challenge for the future - we need to achieve balance with all that we expect from the countryside and its management - be it for food production, recreation or natural resource management and environmental protection.'

The good news for farmers is that maintaining good soil condition also makes good business sense.

If soil is compacted, and it rains heavily, expensive fertilisers get washed away. Not only is this a waste of money; it also deprives farmer's crops of valuable nutrients and could increase the risk of nearby watercourses getting polluted.

Councillor Graham Brown, East Devon District Council's Portfolio Holder for Environment and a Ward member for Feniton, who is also a farmer, said: 'I know the kind of challenges farmers are facing. There are massive economic pressures and the past three wet summers have meant there hasn't been a good time to work the land. But I also know just how devastating the East Devon floods were. Something has got to be done to reduce the risk. I'm delighted that we are working with farmers to tackle this part of the problem. Together we can crack this.'

The most recent climate change projections suggest there will be hotter, drier summers, and warmer, wetter winters and these extreme weather patterns will result in more heavy rainfall.

Councillor Stuart Hughes, Devon County Council Cabinet Member for Highways and Transportation, said: 'Land management alone won't solve the problem of flooding in East Devon. We need to work together to look at all contributing factors, from maintaining drains and culverts, to working with landowners and managers to identify ways of holding back water and allowing it to drain naturally. This will complement efforts to reduce run-off from fields.'


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