Farming News - Landowners plant trees to let nature tackle flooding

Landowners plant trees to let nature tackle flooding

28 Jan 2015


2014 began with huge swathes of the South-West underwater. At the time, the local community, led by Tory MP Iain Liddell Grainger, demanded that dredging take place; this was posited as the solution to repeated flooding on the Somerset Levels, a fifth of which lies below sea level. The dredging projects on the rivers Parrett and Tone were completed in November, though the Environment Agency warned early on in 2014 that on the Levels, where flooding was worst, dredging was "not the comprehensive answer," would not have stopped flooding and could end up shifting the problem further downstream.


 Trees forming a 'riparian buffer' along a stretch of riverThough former Environment Secretary Owen Paterson did initially suggest that "We need to do more to hold water back, way back in the hills," on the whole, little was heard about long-term flood alleviation measures last winter. Still, the recommendations were there; wildlife groups at work in the region demanded a "sustainable flood management strategy, fit for the 21st century" and expressed concern at the response to flooding, led by the local MP.


In a joint statement, RSPB and the local Wildlife Trust urged policy makers to "Slow the water flowupstream to reduce peak floods on the Levels," claiming, "Upstream soils can be made less compact, natural habitats can be restored [and] more broadleaved trees can be planted" to achieve this goal.

New programme to help Shropshire avert flooding


In Shropshire, community groups civil society organisations and local government have come together to forge the Natural Flood Management project, which they hope will address some of these recommendations and deliver long-term protection from flooding, whilst also benefitting the local environment and enriching the community.  


Though the project is still in its early stages, the partners aim to plant trees in strategic places to prevent floodwaters reaching a number of towns and villages across the county. Starting with Battlefield near Shrewsbury, the county council, local Wildlife Trust and Environment Agency will be implementing natural flood management measures in seven pilot areas over the coming year.  


David Edwards, Flood and Water Manager at Shropshire Council, told Farming Online, "Natural flood management is the alteration, restoration or use of landscape features as a way of reducing flood risk," and can include placing "woody structures" in and across watercourses to slow river flows, planting trees, and creating buffer zones and storage ponds to reduce the amount of water entering rivers at peak times.


Mr Edwards said project workers will be engaging with local landowners to learn how their catchments behave during floods. Working together, they will then identify ways of establishing natural flood management measures in areas that will provide the most positive impacts. He said, "[The project] will explore measures to protect businesses, including farm businesses, as well as residential properties, and it is hoped that close working relationships with landowners can be built across the catchments for the benefit of all those who live and work in them."


One catchment covered by the project is Much Wenlock, where the local Tree Forum has begun pre-emptive work to create sustainable flood defences. The Forum has developed a Flood Prevention Scheme, heavily inspired by the Pontbren group's work in Mid-Wales, and has already begun tree-planting work.

The Pontbren Scheme


The Pontbren project is a farmer-led upland management experiment which began in the late 1990s. Roger Jukes, who runs a 2,500 acre hill sheep farm with his wife, assembled ten neighbouring farming families with a view to making upland farming sustainable in the long-term.


The Jukes' Tyn-y-Bryn Farm is at the heart of the cooperative scheme, where trees have been planted on the contours of the land and stocking rates have been lowered to improve soil structure and bulk up low-lying vegetation. These changes have reduced the amount of water flowing off the land, by planting tree belts to take up and store rainwater, and allowing more water to percolate through the improved soil.


Research conducted at the site suggests that, where trees are between two and seven years old, there has been a 60-fold increase in the absorption of rainwater, and where trees are ten years old, a 100-fold increase in absorption has been observed. The Centre for Ecology and Hydrology and several UK universities have studied the scheme. The project was established to reduce the need for external inputs and cut expenses at the farms, but it has also resulted in an increase in wildlife in the area. Even so, as Mr Jukes stressed to visitors from Much Wenlock Tree Forum, "We didn't do it for conservation; we did it for survival."


Meanwhile, in Much Wenlock locals planted their first belt of trees earlier this month - before the official start of the Natural Flood Alleviation Programme. On Saturday 10th January, around 30 volunteers from the community planted 1,000 hedging trees and 14 oaks to provide a shelter belt and flood alleviation at Cuan House Wildlife Centre on the Stretton Road, which was identified as the prime area for flood prevention for the town.


Lesley Durbin, of the town's Tree Forum, said that, though there are no more planting schemes planned for this year, the group is hoping to work with local landowners and farmers who are keen to take the flood prevention work further, by planting the appropriate amount of trees on-well positioned ground. Anyone wishing to get in touch with the Tree Forum can do so through the group's website here.

Woodland Trust working with farmers around the country


Elaborating on the potential benefits of returning trees to farmed land, Austin Brady, Director of Conservation at the Woodland Trust told Farming Online, "Trees offer a wide range of benefits to farms – including helping to reduce the risk of flooding – that can improve the overall productivity of land and health and wellbeing of livestock. When planted in the right places, trees on farms can help to reduce both surface water and river flooding, while at the same time reducing erosion and the loss of nutrients from land."


More than two million tonnes of topsoil are lost each year in the UK, which is impacting on soil fertility, increasing costs and reducing productivity for farmers, as well as polluting waterways. Woodland Trust's Austin Brady said, "Planting trees on mid-slope and down-slope field edges can increase the infiltration of water into the soil by up to 60 per cent. This slows runoff and can prevent or reduce the risk of flash flooding.


"Planting trees along rivers and streams can also help to stabilise banks and enable other vegetation to establish. This protects a bank from erosion, and helps to exclude livestock, thus reducing poaching alongside watercourses, which is another cause of erosion and pollution."


Speaking about the project in Shropshire, the Woodland Trust spokesperson added, "We're delighted to be a partner of the Shropshire Natural Flood Management Project, and hope other farmers are encouraged to plant trees on their land as a result of schemes like this… that are being carried out across the UK."


By August last year, the Trust had already planted over 6,000 trees along the River Clun in Shropshire, as part of a separate project to improve water quality and benefit rare local wildlife. The plantings will also help local landowners protect the river banks from erosion and prevent livestock from easily entering the waterways.


Outside Shropshire, Brady said that the Trust is working with landowners to tackle flooding using long-lasting and low-impact means. He added, "In North West Cumbria for example, an area that has seen devastating floods in the past, the Woodland Trust, Rivers Trust and Environment Agency have been working with landowners along the River Derwent. The scheme has involved three farms previously affected by floods, who have planted trees to help stabilise riverbanks on their land, slow water and reduce the likelihood and impact of floods in the future."


"Trees and shelterbelts need not take land out of production – they can enhance its value and add functionality," he added.


The Woodland Trust offers guidance and support to landowners who would like to plant trees on their land, to not only help deliver water management benefits, but also increase the productivity of their farming systems. Interested parties should call 0845 293 5689, email or search online for ‘Woodland Trust planting’.