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Draining our precious assets: the threat of bank erosion
Friday, 11 October, 2002

Country columnist John Sheard describes how a moment of danger highlighted one of the most serious threats to our landscape

LAST WEEK, I wrote a somewhat bewildered column about the effects of September's long and lovely Indian summer. At the time, I did not realise that one unexpected side effect would save me from, at best, a very unpleasant ducking or, at worst, a watery grave.

I was standing on a high bank on the River Lune, scanning the water without much hope for the signs of moving salmon, when suddenly I experienced a strange sinking feeling.

    River Wharfe
 Under Threat?

I was going down, as in a lift, complete with 16 foot rod, landing net, fishing bag and, just as I realised that this was happening for real - i.e., I wasn't having a funny turn - the water was lapping round the knees of my chest-high waders.

The bank had collapsed underneath me and, with great good fortune, a chunk of grass and soil the size of a snooker table had fallen in the horizontal plane to lower me gently into the river. Had it tipped over, I would have gone in head first from a height of about eight feet.

Now that in itself would have been extremely unpleasant, carrying as I was so much kit. But if the river had been at anything like its normal autumn height, I could have drowned. If it had been in full flood - as it was this time last year - my remains would probably have ended up in Morecambe Bay!

Now I know this pool well: I have fished it for 30 years. It used to be in the lee of a bend in the river which rendered the water under "my" bank calm and relatively slow flowing. In other words, perfect wading water.

However, in the past few years, such have been the freakish floods that have hit the Lune, along with the Aire, Ribble and Wharfe, that the bend in the river has been straightened out: the corner that jutted into the flow has been washed away. This has allowed the now fast flowing stream to undermine the bank where I had been standing and bring about my downfall.

And this represents a much more serious long-term threat than the ducking of the odd angler. It could bring about basic changes to our fast flowing North Country rivers, the landscape they flow through, and the wildlife that depends on them.

River banks are collapsing everywhere and, when this happens upstream, it speeds the flow of the water downstream to contribute to the horrendous flooding of towns and villages on the middle stretches of the Wharfe and Aire - where some householders are now being refused insurance.

It also silts up the riverbed in once crystal clear waters where trout (and salmon and sea trout on the Lune) once laid their eggs in fine gravel to keep them supplied with oxygen. When the silt arrives, these spawning grounds disappear.

Banks that were once home to water voles, kingfishers and sand martins are swept away - and, in heavy floods, so are mature trees, so we are losing the archetypal English landscapes much loved by Constable and Turner.

And why? It is partly due, I suppose, to global warming bringing more rain but there is another, man-made factor which should be under the closest possible scrutiny: land drainage.

The Ministry of Agriculture (MAFF) may be dead and gone but its shortsighted legacy lives on. For years, it paid farmers large sums in grants to drain previously unusable land. This means that, instead of acting like a sponge to soak up excess rainfall, the new drainage systems shoot the water straight into the rivers - and bang go the banks.

This problem was being examined in detail by the short-lived but very effective National Rivers Authority. The NRA was, of course, subsumed into the Environment Agency by the present Government in the interests of civil service efficiency (is that an oxymoron?).

And, so far, I have not heard a word that the Environment Agency is doing anything about bank erosion (except, perhaps, on the Thames, next to the Houses of Parliament).

Perhaps some country folk should tell them we have a problem here - before Ilkley and Silsden and Gargrave and many places like them end up in the North Sea!

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