THOUSANDS of acres of pastureland on the Somerset Levels and Moors look set to remain a lake for months ahead, while the political blame game remains in a similar state of flood.
But what no visiting politician, Environment Agency chief or royalty will do as they are rowed across farms in makeshift boats is blame the real culprit for the floods: a creeping wildlife conservation agenda that has grown steadily more insistent that the Tone Valley drainage scheme of the 1960s be gradually left to rot.
As this column pointed out last May (Eye 1340), through deliberate lack of dredging the flow capacity of the Tone and Parrett rivers, which drain the Levels, had been reduced by 65 percent from their 1960s peak. The excuse given for this slow abandonment of a low-lying area’s drainage scheme (in the face of warnings that global warming will increase the risk of periods of extreme wet weather) is that money is tight and the region did not meet the Environment Agency’s ever more stringent cost/benefit criteria.
But this is disingenuous nonsense. There was plenty of taxpayer money available for the Somerset Levels – but only for wildlife conservation and not for dredging. Last year, £600,000 was made available by Somerset county council and the European Union to recruit and pay for “locally based farm liaison officers” to help farmers cope with the consequences of increased flooding.
Farmers on the Levels have been quick to complain that they have been abandoned by the government; but many of them have quietly been bought off by the conservation shilling. As Glastonbury Festival boss and Somerset farmer Michael Eavis says, the government seems “keener to spend millions protecting river oysters, water voles and umpteen species of birds than a single penny on protecting the hard-working farming families who are just trying to make an honest living from the land.”
Eavis’s farm is just out of the Levels; but when he grumbles that “dredging was stopped and the money saved diverted into conservation”, he fails to point out (or is perhaps simply unaware) that much of that money has been diverted straight into farmers’ pockets: £3m a year of taxpayers’ money is currently given to farmers on the Levels to fund 528 “agri-environment” agreements.
Such agreements cover more than 50,000 acres of the Levels and Moors and pay the farmers involved as much as £180 per acre a year to farm less intensively and encourage habitats like “permanent grassland raised water levels areas”, which are more conducive to a wide variety of flora and fauna.
If anything is to be done to improve the drainage of the Levels, the powerful combined lobby of the RSPB and Somerset Wildlife Trust will have to be overcome first. Both organisations remain opposed to dredging.
A panicked prime minister has declared that dredging of the Parrett and Tone rivers “will begin as soon as it is safe to do so” and that money will be “no object”. But that’s the very point he chooses to miss: money never has been the object; it’s conservation, stupid.