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When banks go bust: the true cost of summer floods

Friday 13 August 2004

Countryside commentator John Sheard was flooded out of his sea-trout fishing this week – but warns there is much more at stake than an angler's sport.

A COUPLE of weeks ago, I was treated to one of the most glorious sights on an English summer: a hovering kingfisher plunging into the shallows for trout fry and then flashing away like a burnished jewel to feed its young in a burrow in a steep bank across the river.

Another victim of the floods - the Kingfisher

My heart soared because kingfishers, a common enough bird in my youth, are now very rare indeed: their numbers have been savaged by water pollution, falls in fish numbers, and the attacks of escaped mink - many of them deliberately released by so-called animal rights activists.

This week, I tried to return to the same spot but was forced back by huge floods. But looking through binoculars, my already dampened spirits were totally crushed.

The kingfisher's bank was gone, completely swept away by the flood. Whether or not the parent birds survived I do not know but any chicks most certainly drowned. And yet another nesting site, which might have offered home to future generations, was gone for good.

For some years now, summer floods have become a regular feature of life in the Yorkshire Dales. The Wharfe, the Ribble, the Lune and the Aire were in full spate again this week, bringing misery to the school holidays and downright fear to many people who have bought what were once desirable riverside properties.

In the Aire Valley below Skipton, many householders may soon find it impossible to buy insurance against flood damage, which will knock many thousands of pounds off the value of their homes. It is a scenario that is being repeated throughout the country.

Now I have the deepest sympathy with these people, and share their anger at the inadequacy of our flood defences, but this is a column devoted to the countryside and the summer floods pose other critical, un-acknowledged threats to our landscape and our wildlife.

Huge areas of high moorland are being swept away as drainage ditches dug in delicate peat bogs twenty or thirty years ago have become virtual ravines, some deep enough to hide a double-decker bus. As a result, the peat, instead of acting like a sponge to soak up heavy rain, now sends it hurtling down in the valleys in torrents.

This high-acid water, delivered in such huge quantities, can dramatically alter the chemical balance of our normally high-alkaline limestone rivers, poisoning aquatic life and sweeping away banks that were once home to many birds and mammals.

Not just my kingfisher family met its end this way. Further down stream was a colony of sand martins that have probably gone too (I can't get to the spot because of the floods). Any hope of re-establishing the long-gone water vole – also killed off by released mink – have been set back ever further.

Millions of tons of good soil are being washed down our rivers as I write, soil that was once prime valley-bottom farmland. How much this will cost farmers in the long run is almost beyond calculation but, if these narrow strips of disappearing bank were added together, it would run into hundreds of acres.

All this silt has another downside too: salmon, sea trout and brown trout need well-oxygenated gravel beds on which to spawn. Thousands of these beds are being destroyed every year, covered in deep silt swept down from above.

Now there is one possible glimmer of hope in this awful scenario. Defra recently announced that farmers wanting conservation subsidies under new rules must leave at least a metre strip of uncultivated land next to water courses. Many have objected because this will mean the loss of land and additional fencing costs.

Hopefully, these floods will show such farmers a silver lining. The roots of bank-side vegetation can act as invaluable anchors to hold the soil together when floods strike. In other words, such strips could save them lost land and provide a massive boost for wildlife. And they will be paid for it too. Sounds like a good deal to me!

Pictures courtesy of the Hamlyn Guide 'Birds of Britain and Europe'

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