WMN opinion: Improved drainage is vital for farming on the Levels
The Somerset Levels is one of the wonders of the Westcountry; a magical low-lying land rich in animal and plant life with an almost other-wordly quality that attracts visitors from across the country and around the world. It is also a vital agricultural area where livestock graze, crops ripen and willow withies are cut for a huge variety of uses.
There is no significant conflict between these two uses for the Levels, agricultural and leisure. They have been farmed for centuries and have attracted visitors drawn by the landscape and wildlife for almost as long. Managing the rivers and drainage ditches ensures that the farmland, which floods from time to time, quickly clears and the farmers who work this land accept flooding as an occasional hazard. The richness of the soil is ample compensation for such inconvenience.
But in 2011 and 2012 exceptionally wet weather, combined with a period of neglect of the Levels' drainage system, brought misery. Fields that would normally be underwater for a few days at most, were left as shallow lakes for weeks. Vital roads that link communities were swamped and impassable. Stock could not be grazed, crops were lost or ruined, farming families suffered and production was dramatically reduced.
Blame was placed upon those responsible for the upkeep of the key rivers that drain the Levels. Local MP Ian Liddell-Grainger accused the Environment Agency, who have plans to flood an area at Steart Point for the benefit of wildlife, of meanwhile neglecting their responsibilities for keeping the main drainage channels on the rivers Tone and Parrett cleared and properly dredged. He may well be right.
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Now, however, with the backing of farmer and Glastonbury Festival founder Michael Eavis CBE, a Bath and West of England Society campaign to raise up to £4m to dredge the rivers has been launched. There is a suspicion among some in the farming community that many in the environmental lobby would rather areas like the Levels were left to slowly 'drown' on the basis that would be good for wildlife.
Yet any kind of 're-wilding', as the buzzword has it, would be disastrous for the Levels which were drained in medieval times and thrive best as a managed landscape for the benefit of agriculture and the natural world. That is how it must stay.