Monthly Archives: February 2014

Floods of Questions

It was interesting to hear the president of the National Farmers’ Union (“NFU”), Peter Kendall, commenting on the use of natural flood management techniques to the BBC yesterday. According to the BBC news website he condemned plans to flood farms on high ground as “ludicrous” and stated that farmland was “far too valuable”. Strangely, I don’t recall any commentators talking about flooding whole farms in order to prevent flooding elsewhere; as I understand it just a small proportion of farmland would need to be used to capture water during floods. And we are probably talking about land that is already prone to flooding or set-aside land that is already out of agricultural use.

I also wonder what he meant when he described farmland as too valuable. Does he perhaps mean that instead of being used as flood storage areas, farmland should instead be built on by housing developers? Maybe I am being cynical and possibly a little unfair but have you ever heard many farmers complaining that farmland is too valuable to be built on?

Another of Mr Kendall’s comments related specifically to farms in Somerset which had been flooded “year on year” he said. But the article gave no indication as to whether he had ever asked himself why. This year’s rainfall in the south west has been exceptional, so if flooding is a yearly event, its causes probably deserve a more thorough investigation.

Perhaps it has something to do with water running straight off (farm)land at higher levels? In the case of the Somerset Levels in particular, the gradient of the land won’t have helped (it’s flat!). And what about the past? In his recent article entitled Keeping a Level Head, the ecologist Miles King shared the revelation that until the 19th Century, the lower lying land on the Somerset Levels was only farmed during the summer months because, guess what, it often flooded during the winter.

So what can we learn? Many interested parties have emerged during this winter’s flooding and as you would expect, they are all keen to further their own divergent agendas. What is clear is that the crux of the problem lies in the fact that there are lots of us here in England, and this puts pressure on the land we live in. How should we best use that land so that we have enough (dry) homes to live in, adequate food to eat and a bio-diverse natural environment that can support wildlife?

This is the question we need to resolve and I for one hope that we can reach a solution that delivers the best for our natural environment, because I think that by doing so, we will deliver a better solution on the whole.

Spring

Spring is definitely in the air. The last two days I have visited St Nicholas Park nature reserve, run by the Northumberland Wildlife Trust, which is just across the road from where I work. Shamefully I confess that I have only just begun visiting this reserve on some of my lunch breaks. It is literally across the road from my office and although it is only tiny, it offers a few different habitats in a very small area.

This week I discovered the small pond is heaving with frogs all ready to breed and spawn. Both the sight and sound was amazing! It has been a while since I have seen so many frogs in one place and I don’t think I have ever heard such a chorus of croaking and churring. Definitely a sign of spring’s imminent arrival. Here are some pictures of the frogs in action…

Common Frog (Rana Tempororaria)

Common Frog (Rana Temporaria)

Common Frog (Rana Temporaria)

And here are some further signs of spring – snowdrops and primroses together.

Galanthus Nivalis and Primula Vulgaris

Galanthus Nivalis

Nesting Instinct

I am slightly late with this post but last week (14 – 21 February) was National Nest Box Week designed to encourage people to put up nest boxes, monitor which birds use them during the breeding season then report back to the British Trust for Ornithology (“BTO”).

Now is about the time of year when some of our resident breeding birds begin to prospect for potential nest sites. That means it’s a good idea to build or buy your nest box and get it put up in the garden as soon as possible if you want to attract any tenants for this year’s breeding season. Of course it doesn’t matter if your nest box goes up late; it may not be used this year but it could still provide birds with a place to roost over the winter.

A good place to find out more about nest boxes and how to build them is the BTO’s website. This year I am really keen to build my own but I fear I am running out of time to have it up and ready for the breeding season. So as well as a nest box I am planning to create a potential nesting site for Wrens in my garden by piling up some old branches, twigs, leaves, grass clippings and other detritus in a quiet corner.

Hopefully I will be able to share some pictures of this some time next week. In the meantime, I hope you are able to check out National Nest Box Week on the BTO’s website.

Natural Flood Management

With this winter’s flooding crisis still in full flow, I thought it would be useful to find out a bit more about the natural flood defences mentioned in my post last week. One of the areas where these kind of measures have been piloted is actually fairly local to me in the village of Belford in Northumberland.

Belford is a small village with a burn running through it that has had a history of flooding as far back as the 19th Century. After frequent flooding where some villagers and businesses were inundated up to five times during a two-year period and a further major flood in 2007, locals had had enough. Unfortunately, through the lens of cost benefit Belford was not deemed deserving of the funding required to construct “hard engineered” flood defences so the Environment Agency (“EA”) was forced to come up with an alternative.

In collaboration with Newcastle University the EA worked with local farmers to construct a number of “soft engineered” flood defences which went with the grain of nature rather than against it. Using a proportion of local farmland upstream of the village they created storage pools and wetlands using the natural contours of the land; as well as beaver dams and willow features along the Belford burn watercourse.  These cost between just £200k and £300k (compared to an estimated £2.5 million for a hard engineered flood defence) and work to retain water upstream of Belford during flooding, as well as slowing the water’s pace so it is less damaging. Not only that but these measures help improve water quality, trap silt and create new areas of ecological benefit. The  important question though is have they worked?

Well, Belford is now being held up as a prime example for other areas of the UK to follow and since these measures were introduced they have certainly helped alleviate the impacts of flooding in the village. Natural Flood Management techniques as these measures are termed, seem to be an environmentally sensitive and cost-effective way of flood mitigation. Other natural flood management techniques include;

  • Land management and land use

The creation of grassland buffer zones and suitably placed strips of trees on farmland can help reduce surface water run-off and prevent separate flows of water merging into larger, more powerful bodies of water. This can also help prevent soil erosion and stop pesticides leaching into watercourses.

  • Woodland creation

Planting river catchment areas and the sides of water courses with trees can help interrupt the flow of flood water and aid the absorption of flood water by the soil, as the tree roots channel water directly into the ground. Trees can also help by intercepting and evaporating off rainfall.

  • Sediment management

This includes measures such as tree planting along watercourses which help prevent soil erosion and the run-off of silt which can reduce the flow of rivers.

  • Built water storage

This involves the use of a small proportion of land as a reservoir to capture surface water run-off during floods. It can be expensive given the costs of land and any construction of built earth banks etc. but it is an effective technique.

  • River restoration

Restoring river meanders so that river length is increased and slope decreased. This measure can help retain flood water upstream, away from low-lying areas vulnerable to flooding. It can also include the removal of in-stream structures such as culverts and weirs which can increase river capacity in times of flooding but also result in localised flooding and the creation of wetland areas with water storage potential.

  • Creation of washlands

Washlands are areas of land that are allowed to flood to prevent flooding further downstream. These can be natural flood plains or other specially created areas which can also have significant ecological benefits. However, the creation of washlands must balance other needs such as the requirement for sufficient land for food production.

If you have seen any of the media coverage of this winter’s flooding you might be forgiven for thinking that natural flood management techniques are something novel. In fact though you would be wrong. The planting of trees in river catchments and use of water storage pools and wetlands is something that British experts have long been helping developing countries do, in order to alleviate flooding and prevent soil erosion. You may remember learning this kind of thing in your geography lessons; I certainly do. It is somewhat ironic that we are only just recognising the need for such schemes in our own country.

There are numerous policies, strategies and legal requirements already in place to help prevent flooding, water run-off and soil erosion. Natural flood management techniques must surely play a key role in the execution of these strategies. However, their uptake remains limited for many reasons. Partly to blame is lack of funding (Labour have recently criticised the Government’s decision to withdraw funding for up to 300 “shovel ready” projects), although I suspect this may change in light of this winter’s events. Also to blame is the complexity of some of the projects and the fact they require communities and landowners to work together. Then there is the simple lack of political will to put something that goes with the grain of nature rather than against it at the centre of any policy decision.

In the aftermath of this winter’s flooding I wonder if this may change? Whether you believe in man-made climate change or not, or even if you do not believe in climate change at all, there is certainly a case for trying to ensure this kind of flooding doesn’t happen again. And however you look at it natural flood management techniques must surely form part of the solution.

St Mary’s and Whitley Bay

At the weekend I decided to head out early to St Mary’s and the north end of Whitley Bay to look at the wading birds and see what other birds I could find. The weather on Sunday was cold and bright and as I arrived I could see I had timed it right and the tide was out. I headed straight to the sea wall overlooking the north end of Whitley Bay and peered out across the shoreline, immediately spotting good numbers of Oystercatcher, Sanderling and Redshank interspersed with Ringed Plover. There were possibly some Dunlin and Common Sandpiper as well but I didn’t have time to tell, because if the first rule of wader watching is check the tide, the second rule must be make sure you get there before the dog walkers! As the people and dogs moved in, the birds unfortunately either flew away or moved further out towards the waterline so I decided to head round towards St Mary’s Island and the path which runs along the headland towards Hartley and Seaton Sluice.

On the way I spotted plenty of gulls on the rocks, mainly of the Black Headed or Herring variety along with some Eiders out to sea. Closer in on the rocks I was pleased to spy a Rock Pipit feeding amongst the boulders and seaweed and was seriously impressed by its agility as it disappeared down into to some very deep crevices before reappearing with its beak part full. Up on the path towards Hartley I was immediately struck by the fantastic sound of a number of Skylark in full song. If ever there was a sound that represents the onset of Spring it is this. I scanned the fields and spotted at least five or six, perhaps displaying (?) but certainly darting around one another, lifting off into the air and bursting forth into song. Further along the path, still in the fields to my left, I noticed a large flock of Golden Plover but it was hard to get a good view as they were all facing away from me, directly into the scouring westerly wind. No wonder they didn’t seem very cheerful; quite in contrast to the Skylarks!

Almost at Hartley I turned round and headed back towards St Mary’s, checking for any small birds in the willow, brush and elder thickets which run in some places near the cliff edge. I couldn’t find anything other than a Magpie which then moved across the path onto the field edge, so I decided to take a peek round the other side of one of the thickets and down over the cliff. I had wondered whether I might manage to see Stonechat here but it was more in hope than expectation, so I was blown away to see a handsome specimen of that very bird perched in some high grass directly in front of me. The Stonechat was very forthcoming, showing really well at quite close hand, allowing me a good few minutes’ viewing as it darted up and down the grass-covered cliff before finally flying out of sight. I was bouncing along the path now and soon spotted another first for the year; a pair of Reed Bunting perched on some old cow parsley stems in one of the fields to my right. Back at the small wetland area near St Mary’s I spotted some more Reed Bunting, including a male very close in some hawthorn next to one of the hides. On the water there were quite a few ducks, mainly Teal but also Mallard and maybe one or two Pochard, as well as plenty of gulls and a couple of Moorhen skulking near the reeds.

Time was marching on so I decided to have one more look at Whitley Bay before making my way along towards St Mary’s Island and the smaller beach just beside it (I am not sure if it has a name). On the way I got a great view of a Cormorant fishing a deep pool, far out towards the open water. At first (as I don’t own a field scope) I thought it was a diver the way it held itself sleek to the water before diving but a closer look as it breached the surface revealed its true identity. I have never really watched a cormorant fishing a pool in this way (they’re normally flying or sat perched when I see them) so this was another enjoyable experience. The small beach beside St Mary’s Island held relatively few birds; a Crow and two Ringed Plovers foraging amongst the seaweed but also a Redshank and a Curlew probing the shore at the waterline. Further round on the rocks I spotted a smart pair of Greater Black Backed Gulls and to cap things off, a very handsome male Goldeneye diving and resurfacing out on the water.

I made those my last birds and headed off for home after that but I was left with the sense that where I live is a very special place for wildlife, and especially birds. The sheer abundance of birdlife, particularly at this time of year is awe-inspiring, as is the range of different species which can be seen in what is a very small area really.  I suppose it is partly down to location, with the coast on this part of the country exposed to migratory and vagrant birds coming in from various directions (although not sure I saw many on this occasion), and being less disturbed and quite sparsely populated. But also there is such a wide variety of different habitats here in the North East, from coast to wetland to tidal mud flats to woodland to heather moorland – the list could go on. I certainly intend to explore each in more detail in future posts.

In Full Flood

As the flooding crisis in the South of England worsened last week, the issue of dredging began to feel increasingly irrelevant. Nevertheless I was surprised that the anti- Environment Agency, anti-wildlife rhetoric seemed to persist in the media well into last week. Given the tide of ill-informed comment that has flooded TV reports and newspaper articles, I think we ought to be careful that the real reasons for this winter’s floods are not simply washed away.

As easy as it has been to cite the Environment Agency’s decision not to dredge rivers, it just does not stack up. I am no expert of course but looking at the awful pictures on TV, I just can’t see how dredging watercourses would have been much help; the Somerset Levels are under feet of water in some places and the volume of water there and in other parts of the South is huge. Dredging rivers would be akin to trying to bail out the Titanic with a bucket. Of course dredging can serve a purpose, clearing blockages and removing accumulated silt that has run down from the hills but it does not prevent flooding. If enough rain falls that the river channel reaches capacity, surplus water will cover the flood plain. And dredging has other drawbacks too: it’s expensive for one thing and requires regular repetition; it destroys river ecosystems and can undermine structures like bridges, as well as damaging the integrity of the river channel itself.

So if it’s not down to lack of dredging, why has England seen such bad flooding this winter? The people whose homes have been inundated deserve an answer and in my opinion it is two-fold. First we need to consider where all that water is coming from. Yes, it’s falling as rain directly into the rivers and onto flood plains but rivers have wider catchment areas than that. Rivers are fed from the uplands, from hills and even mountains which maybe some distance away from the flood plain itself. This winter the lower lying rivers and flood plains have not been able to cope with the sheer volume of water running straight off the hills and mountains which form their catchment. Why is that you ask? Well, I think it has a lot to do with land use in those upland areas. In general the hills of England are typically devoid of forestation and tend to be used to graze sheep, or are drained to support arable crops. There is very little on the hills to hold back water when it rains. The science says that one way to prevent flooding in low lying areas is to retain as much water as possible in the hills. A way of doing this is to plant trees which channel water down into the soil via their root systems. Another way is to slow down the flow of water in upland rivers. Remember we talked about dredging? By ceasing to dredge upland watercourses, the flow of water is slowed so that it causes less damage and does not simply rush straight down to its next destination. Allowing rivers to take their more natural, meandering course is another way of keeping water where we want it, as is allowing some upland land to flood, where it is safe to do so. The journalist George Monbiot has recently written some excellent articles which go into much more detail on this subject and it is mainly to him I owe any knowledge on the matter. You can read his article Drowning in Money here.

Secondly, we need to consider the sheer volume of rainfall that England – particularly the South – has experienced this winter. Indeed, it looks like we are on course for an exceptionally wet winter, the wettest for 250 years. So I am astounded that barely a mention has been made in the media of climate change (The Guardian newspaper front page headline on Friday 14th February was really the first that I have noticed on the subject). Now I must admit until very recently I have teetered on the fence where climate change is concerned. It feels much better to thrust your head in the sand, to pretend everything is fine; it’s part of the human condition. I am only in my early thirties – not too many years in the scheme of things, what have I seen really? Unfortunately, the last few years have begun to change all that. Whether you agree that it is caused by human activities or not, I think the world’s climate is changing. And that helps to explain the volume of rainfall and subsequent flooding we have had. But amazingly, hardly anyone seems to have breathed the words “global warming” or “climate change”. I wonder why that could be? Is it because for the last 20 years, despite pledges of action, the world’s Governments have done very little to tackle the causes of climate change? What has the UK Government done over that period, or even during its most recent Parliament, supposedly the “greenest Government ever”? The generous answer is little or nothing. And as we have seen so far this winter, we are hopelessly ill-prepared for the possible impacts of our altered climate.

So if this kind of thing is likely to become a more regular occurrence in the British Isles, what do we need to do? I think we definitely need to look at our land use in the uplands and urgently. If as much water as possible can be kept in the hills through natural means – such as the planting of woods and shelter belts, paying upland farmers to allow some land to flood and the slowing of watercourses in these areas – that would go a long way to providing a low cost, sustainable flood defence. I think we are undoubtedly going to have to spend billions of pounds on flood defences in future, so where we can go with the grain of nature rather than against it we should. And we urgently need to have a serious conversation about climate change in this country. If we can take measures to limit the causes of climate change, then we absolutely should, before the effects become more drastic.

Welcome To My Blog!

Welcome to my blog! Here I plan to document all my experiences with nature and the natural world, as well as share my thoughts on any topical issues that relate to it.

To be honest, I am on a bit of a journey. I have always been fascinated with nature, for almost as long as I can remember. But somehow over the years what was an obsession as a child became slowly smothered by all the other accumulated layers of life that come with growing up. Don’t get me wrong, I never stopped getting a thrill from that sparrow hawk perched on the fence or a feeling of awe at the return of the first swallow in Spring, but as time marched on, nature became less of who I am. Now I intend to redress that balance.

No longer do I want to watch the seasons speed past the car window on my way to work; I want to stop, slow down and appreciate the wildlife around me. I want to start learning again – about the things I am already familiar with and about things as yet undiscovered. I want nature to be a bigger part of my life than it currently is, as I hope that nature will once again be a larger part of everyone’s lives. I am sure that this blog will help with the former and perhaps it will even assist the latter, who knows?

Before I go any further, I must admit to having no background or expertise in ecology, just a really keen interest in nature and our environment. Fortunately for me I live in the North East of England (in West Monkseaton to be precise, near Whitley Bay) which is a part of the world blessed with a rich mix of habitats and a fantastic array of species. So hopefully I should be able to see a lot, learn a bit more and with luck, write about some of my findings here. As I say, I am still a beginner really so I welcome any comments you may have, or even tips about where to go and what to look for and of course, please feel free to correct me where I err!

In my opinion, something that comes with being interested in our nature is a responsibility to protect the wildlife we have, and not just that, even enhance the natural environment. So I suspect this blog may also contain more than a few postings on topical issues that concern our wildlife, and perhaps the odd call to action for anyone who is interested. I make no apologies for that and I guess if you are still reading this, you probably won’t mind.

So there you go, introductions over and now down to business.

Thanks for reading.

Sam