Somerset Levels flooding: who’s levelling with us?

It’s 30 years since I spent serious time researching the Somerset Levels and its precarious balance between farming and wildlife, which of course hinges on how much flooding to allow. That was for my book, Wild Britain. Where are we now?

I should say that I wrote that book as Richard North, before the emergence as a famous figure of my “rival”, Dr Richard North, who works with Christopher Booker of the Telegraph. They have opined on the present Somerset Levels crisis in terms which get the story about half-right, I would say. But they are, I think, wrong enough for it to be worth adding a word of my own. (Not least because there has been some Facebook confusion suggesting that the Booker/North North is me.)

But Booker/North do matter anyway. They are famous anti-EU campaigners, and both have waged war on the Ministry of Agriculture (as was) and the newish Department of the Environment and Rural Affairs (Defra). (I don’t share those campaigns. Besides, they also loathe the IPCC consensus on climate change, or AGW, whilst I like big chunks of it.) They note that the EU and Defra and the Enviroment Agency have formulated a pro-wetland approach to responding to a nest of issues including climate change, rising sea levels, subsidising farmers (or not), and encouraging wildlife. They go from that fairly accurate view to suggesting that the powers-that-be have decided to abandon Somerset to the floods.

Actually, however, I would say that in the tension between the conservationists (especially the RSPB) and the farmers (especially the Royal Bath and West Society), the local authorities, the national government departments (especially Defra) and their semi-detached Quangos (such as the EA), and the relations between all those and the Prime Minister and the Treasury, we have recently been heading – and will now charge full-speed – toward some interesting accommodations. The conservationists and the farmers, especially, seem to understand each others’ positions, even if they haven’t yet and may never declare peace between them.

If you want a flavour of the arguments, I would suggest that you read Booker/North; the RSPB and RBWS. I think Charles Clover, Geoffrey Lean, and Clive Aslett have all done pretty decent accounts of the problem and possible solutions. I thought Hannah Cloke was spot-on with her BBC2 Politics Today appearance today.

I would warn against one potential fallacy, and do so because I don’t hear it addressed elsewhere. It is often suggested that we could and should pay farmers to “soften” their farming methods above and on the Somerset Levels so as to reduce the off-flow of water from hill to lowland, whilst increasing their reliance to flooding.

I can easily imagine that we will want this lowering in intensity of farming operations. But I think we will demand them by fiat rather than bribery. We may go so far as to invoke something close to the idea of “criminal damage” as we assail farmers for the harm some of their methods may cause.

I imagine that almost everywhere, and not least in Somerset, policy will end up defending most urban and some but not all rural brick and mortar. I imagine many farmers on wet hills and lowlands having it extremely rough because though they will be victims of policy whether it is of the successful or unsuccessful sort, they will also be seen as villains.

Farmers will probably say they are being sacrificed to birdlife. Rather, they will rightly be told they can’t continue to go for intensification as they face economic and environmental pressure to sweat their assets. And (rightly in my rightish view) the tax-payer won’t be there for them.

Here are some links:



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Publication date

12 February 2014