Flooding, Farming and the Future: For Centuries, the British Landscape Has Been Engineered for the Benefit of Farmers and Landowners. Bur as Climate Change Has Increased the Frequency of Heavy Rainfall, the Consequences of This Management Are Now Being Seen, with 'Once in a Century' Floods Striking with Increasing Frequency, Forcing Us to Rethink Our Approach to Managing the Countryside

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I wandered lonely as a cloud,' begins Wordsworth's well-known sonnet Daffodils. It's difficult to believe that he wrote it about the Lake District, a place where clouds are seldom alone, more often travelling in crowds, and that now holds the unenviable honour of boasting the UK's highest recorded rainfall in a 24-hour period.

Between 18 and 20 November 2009, a warm, moisture-laden Atlantic depression was tracking sluggishly northeastwards between Scotland and Iceland. A weather front within this air-stream was forced to rise over the higher ground of the Lake District and as its clouds hung ominously over the northern valleys, they emptied themselves onto the hills. By breakfast rime on the 20th, more than 400 millimetres of rain had fallen at Seathwaite, Borrowdale--almost one anda half times the monthly average.

Greg Nicholson farms at Causeway Foot Farm, a few kilometres south of Keswick and close to the eye of the storm. He remembers that morning well. 'When we woke, there was a new river running between the farmhouse and the holiday cottage,' he says. 'It was flowing out of the farmyard, across the road and into a decentsized lake in the valley bottom.' Elsewhere in the county, the floods left a trail of damage as rivers fled their banks and re-wrote the hydrology of the countryside.

Cockermouth bore tine brunt of the damage. Two hundred people had to be rescued from their homes when a wall of water 2.S metres high adopted a new channel down the main street. Almost half of the 2,000 Cumbrian homes that were flooded that night were in Cockermouth. About 80 per cent of its businesses were also affected.

The wall of water that swept through the town also deposited 12,000 tonnes of gravel on fields downstream. Across the Lake District, three major road bridges were washed away and 20 others had to be closed. More than 240 right-of-way bridges were lost, and it's estimated that repairing the damage to footpaths alone will cost 3.5million [pounds sterling].

The November 2009 floods didn't happen in isolation, bur are part of a developing picture. And it isn't just an issue for the northwest: the Environment Agency estimates that in England, about 5.2 million properties--that's about one in six--are at risk of flooding. It's a ticking time bomb. Like terrorism, we all fear the next strike, bur no-one knows where or when it will happen. So what can we do about it and how do we make ourselves more resilient to the next surprise attack?


Land use is a major control for flooding, and in lowland areas, much has been made of the link between flooding and modifications to land use. If land use is important in our floodplains, then it's equally crucial in the uplands. We tend to think of UK uplands as natural places, but they are as man-made as our cities.

Farmers and landowners, as the keepers of the uplands, hold the key to how these areas are managed. In the past, farming has been very unwelcoming to water. With its focus on food production, agriculture has aimed to move water across the land as quickly as possible, and government policy has encouraged it. Since the Second World War, bedgerows have been removed, land has been drained and rivers canalised. This has been carried out in order to maximise the area available for livestock, often at the taxpayers expense. In the meantime, sheep numbers have increased and their intensive grazing has compounded the problem by compacting the soil and reducing infiltration.

Increasingly, land managers are coming to recognise that it we want to manage flooding, we need to create more water-friendly landscapes. Back at Causeway Foot Farm, Greg is quick to point out the most serious challenge to any re-naturalisation of river valleys: a whole-valley solution needs every land owner affected to buy into the process. 'I might not mind losing a couple of fields, bur what if my neighbour does? …


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