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Prof Mike Acreman, Natural Capital Science Area Lead at CEH, outlines the history and some of the issues affecting the Somerset Levels and Moors...

The Somerset Levels and Moors are the UK’s largest wetland area at over 650 km2, known globally for their iconic pastoral farming landscape, spectacular birdlife and significant archaeological remains. Such characteristics make the area an attractive place to live, work and bring up children.

The low-lying nature of the land (close to sea-level) and transit of major rivers (Parrett, Tone, Brue, Axe) make the area subject to periodic winter inundation. This has created fertile peat soils and a rich diversity of animal and plant communities over the past 10,000 years. Our Neolithic ancestors exploited the natural resources (fish and game) by building their houses and trackways on stilts above the floodwaters.

Somerset Levels

The Somerset Levels. Photo by Nick licensed under CC BY 2.0

Drainage of the land was started by monks around Glastonbury in the Middle Ages to create seasonal grazing (the Somerset means summer pastures). Agricultural intensification accelerated during the early 20th century to increase food production, particularly during the two World Wars. Government subsidies paid for large pumping stations to drain the land, allowing access during the winter, and peat extraction, initially for fuel and then for horticulture.

Until mechanisation the depth of peat working was generally limited by the depth to groundwater. Since the introduction of mechanical excavators and pump-drainage, peat has been excavated to its full thickness and at much higher rates. Drying of peat soils exposed them to wind erosion and oxidisation with a loss of 20,000 tonnes per year, questioning the sustainability of intensive farming. As a result, wetland plants and animals began to decline rapidly.

In the 1980s, subsidies were introduced to encourage farmers to raise water levels, to halt soil loss and allow wetland plants and animals to re-establish. This coincided with declining incomes on some farms, so many land owners saw financial sense in meeting targets for payments and pleasure in seeing the return of lost wildlife. Previous peat extraction zones were acquired by conservation organisations and turned into reedbed that support wetland birds and attract many tourists. In contrast, other landowners saw intensification and arable farming as the best future for their businesses and families and sought additional infrastructure to manage flood water levels. This stimulated intense debate about the future direction of development on the Levels and Moors.

Ham Wall nature reserve in Somerset

Ham Wall Nature Reserve. Photo by Matt Neale licensed under CC BY 2.0

The catastrophic floods of winter 2013/14 intensified and polarised this debate. Across the country continuous heavy rainfall led to the highest January river flows since records began in 1860. Around 11,000 hectares of the Levels and Moors were inundated, pushing many farmers close to bankruptcy and suicide. Some 175 homes flooded, whole villages (e.g. Moorland and Fordgate) were evacuated. Major roads and railways were impassable and the towns of Muchelney and Thorney were isolated for months.

The damage from the 2013/14 floods was estimated at £82m to £147 million, with the floods prompting strong local and national media coverage, visits by senior politicians and Prince Charles, and a promise from the Prime Minster that “we cannot let this happen again”. Climate change experts warned that such major events may become more common. In response many people campaigned for major government investment in built infrastructure (including a barrage across the River Parrett) and river dredging to enhance protection of intensively-used farmland against future floods. Others felt it was time for a shift to land use that works with floods, which would restore peat soils and wildlife, stimulating alternative incomes from wildlife tourism, biofuels and extensive seasonal grazing, with infrastructure investment focused on specific vulnerable urban areas and transport.

Flood Action Plan

The Somerset Levels and Moors Flood Action Plan, a £100 million 20-year plan for a sustainable future, offers a middle way, in which the area  is seen by the year 2030 “as a thriving, nature-rich wetland landscape, with grassland farming taking place on the majority of the land. The impact of extreme weather events is being reduced by land and water management in both upper catchments and the floodplain and by greater community resilience”.

Key aspects of the plan include dredging and river management, land management in the upper and mid catchment to reduce flood risk on the lowlands, reducing urban runoff, protecting roads, railways, sewerage, power and telecommunications and providing local people with the means to help themselves during a flood event.

Wetland scene with Glastonbury Tor in the background

Glastonbury Tor. Photo by Mike Acreman

The Flood Action Plan provides costs of individual actions but producing a wider economic assessment of costs and benefits of different long-term strategies remains a challenge. Researchers including myself from the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology and Dr Rosalind Bark from the University of Leeds have been working with the Somerset Water Management Partnership to define a set of plausible future options for the Levels and Moors. We are calculating broad-scale costs and benefits of each option. We fully recognise that many options will not benefit all communities equally and that economic values cannot be found for many aspects of the quality of life in the Levels and Moors including the presence of rare species, a sense of community and spiritual connection.

Nevertheless, we hope that the results of the study alongside other criteria will help make the best decisions for the people and environment of this locally, nationally and international important landscape.

Prof Mike Acreman

Additional information

Staff page of Prof Mike Acreman, CEH

20 year Flood Action Plan