Floods devastate life on the Levels

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By Western Daily Press | Saturday, June 09, 2012, 08:00

wdnews@bepp.co.uk

Catastrophic flooding on the Somerset Levels has left farmers facing losses totalling millions of pounds and wiped out wildlife on one of the country's most important nature sites.

Nearly 2,000 acres of prime grazing and arable land has been turned into an unusable morass after being submerged for more than six weeks, farmers say.

Their losses from not being able to cut hay for silage to feed livestock will run into hundreds of thousands of pounds.

They are unlikely to receive a penny in compensation – and they say the damage is far worse than it should be because the Environment Agency has failed to keep local rivers properly dredged.

The floods hit Curry Moor, near Taunton, in April when the River Tone burst its banks after days of torrential rain across its catchment. At one time water was standing eight feet deep and two local roads had to be closed.

The Environment Agency brought in emergency pumps to supplement a permanent pumping station which normally drains the moor. But the work was only completed this week.

And farmers say the land will now be unusable for at least the rest of the year.

Farmer Tony Bradford, vice-chairman of the River Parrett drainage board, said: "It's nothing more than a stinking, polluted hell-hole. The stench is unbelievable."

Curry Moor has traditionally acted as a safety valve for the River Tone, relieving the pressure on the waterway and protecting homes and businesses further upstream in Taunton from being inundated.

Like much of the surrounding area, it lies below the level of the Tone, a tributary of the Parrett which is tidal as far as North Curry. But with a recent run of exceptionally high tides in the Bristol Channel, both rivers have been tide-locked for longer than normal, restricting the rate at which water could be pumped away.

But, said Mr Bradford, the impact of the floods would not have been as dramatic had the Environment Agency kept both rivers properly dredged.

"There has been no dredging work for years because of cutbacks," he said. "We have been asking for more to be done but the answer always comes back that there's no money. You are never going to stop flooding on Curry Moor but you can certainly do things which will speed up the evacuation of the water.

"But now they are planning another 800 acres of housing in Taunton the problem is going to get worse – because more water will be running off into the river more quickly than it does from farmland."

At this time of the year farmers would normally be cutting hundreds of acres of grass on Curry Moor for hay or silage and using other fields for grazing livestock: the land is some of the most productive in the county partly, ironically, because of the silt that is deposited there during winter flooding.

But summer flooding is hugely damaging. High water temperatures kill off grass and other vegetation completely, generating high levels of pollution.

Now farmers face having to buy in hay and silage – and it is likely to be next spring before cattle can be allowed back to graze.

Curry Moor is a Site of Special Scientific Interest, protected for its wading and water fowl populations, though it was also designated as an official reservoir under EU regulations in 2002.

North Curry farmer Tom Jeanes said wildlife on the moor had been wiped out.

"This is the only place I know of where they can designate a reservoir without the landowners' consent and allow it to flood whenever they choose and destroy a wildlife site in the process," he said. "There were all sorts of birds nesting down there – swans, ducks, reed warblers and larks: all their nests and their eggs have gone. We can't even start to use the land again until it has been re-seeded and I can't see us being able to do that until a lot later in the year."

National Farmers' Union regional director Melanie Squires said the union was already taking legal advice as to whether farmers might be able to claim compensation to cover some of their losses.

"But as it currently stands it seems compensation is not available," she said.

"The Environment Agency has being doing what it can but we are talking about a freak event."

But Bridgwater and West Somerset Conservative MP Ian Liddell-Grainger said the agency had been 'criminally neglectful' in not keeping the rivers properly dredged.

He has already visited the farm of one of his constituents and, he said:

"It was an appalling mess. There is going to be a huge financial impact on all the farmers down there and a massive impact on wildlife. And I am absolutely horrified there seems to be no help available to the farmers.

"The Environment Agency is quite happy to squander £18million on some grandiose scheme to flood and ruin the countryside over at Steart, at the mouth of the Parrett, but is clearly not prepared to spend enough money to ensure flooding doesn't ruin Curry Moor.

"And where is Natural England? If a farmer so much as disturbs a single bird's nest they are jumping all over him yet when the Environment Agency wrecks an entire SSSI we never hear a word."

The Environment Agency denied that a lack of dredging had contributed to the problem and said it had managed to clear the water more quickly than in the last major floods 15 years ago by mobilising extra pumps from other regions.

But a spokesman said removing the stagnant water had been a delicate balancing act because rotting vegetation had polluted it and lowered oxygen levels. That could have led to it damaging river life if it had been pumped away uncontrolled.

"We had to monitor the water quality and aerate it before we could pump – and we also had to watch the river level very carefully because we did not want to cause more flooding," he said.

"But Curry Moor is designed to accommodate floodwaters: it is a floodplain. We have been working as hard as we can to get the water off it. And the land will recover."

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