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Helmsley floods: act of God or man made?

Friday 24 June 2005

The Yorkshire Dales had a lucky escape this week when, fifty miles further east, the North York Moors were hit by devastating floods. Our countryside commentator John Sheard asks whether those floods were, in part at least, man made?

BACK in the 1960s, when governments in general and MAFF in particular were frenziedly urging land managers to continually increase the productivity of our countryside, some bright spark at the Forestry Commission decided that we needed more conifer forest.

And there were huge areas of open moorland which produced virtually nothing but the odd spot of heather (if we were lucky) and thousands of square miles of acid peat bog.

Are freak floods caused by forestry drainage?

So let's drain the bogs, said our friend, and recover them with mile after mile of dark, often ugly forests, which we can make into pit props (for an industry which barely used them any more) and Christmas trees.

So in hundreds of upland areas, many of which happened to be in national parks, scores of machines went to work cutting chevron-shaped ditches a couple of feet deep in the peat. They were called grips and the idea was to drain off the land and replace it with trees.

Although some scientists may have been sceptical at the time, no one in authority bothered to ask if those peat uplands served any useful purpose. Like, for instance, acting as giant sponge to soak up the sudden rainstorms which are common in such areas so that the excess water was filtered slowly into the moorland becks.

And no-one predicted that, after a few decades in soft soil and high rainfall, those grips would be eroded into huge storm channels, sometimes deep and wide enough to accommodate a double decker bus.

So as a result, as has happened so often with Britain's haphazard and often misguided rural strategy, these huge drainage systems pour billions of tons of water into small, often shallow, streams and rivers where they can build up into raging torrents.

This week, Helmsley on the North York Moors was hit by a flash flood which caused damage costing tens of millions of pounds. The same thing happened to Boscastle in Cornwall last year. And in 1979, Skipton was hit by a flash flood which caused one lady to drown in her own living room.

Now I do not want to go into the global warming debate again - I agree that is happening but am not convinced of the causes - but I would bet my last penny that old forestry works played an important part in turning this week's freak storm from the disturbing into a the disastrous.

For there are many hundreds of people in the Yorkshire Dales who, in recent years, have had real cause to fear heavy rain (or snow, for that matter, although we have not seen much of that this past 20 years or so).

Their homes - often extremely expensive ones - are situated in the mid-sections of the Wharfe and the Aire and one of the reasons why they are expensive is that the English have always prized living on the waterfront.

But some have been flooded so often - particularly in the Aire valley between Skipton and Keighley - that they are now in danger of being refused insurance, which will not only knock a great deal of the value of their properties but which will leave them living in dread at every cloudburst.

And this is yet another cock-up by officialdom. For years, scientists have been warning about the dangers of building on flood plains. For years, planners have been giving the go-ahead for such development.

There is a degree of hope. Scientists are working in Upper Wharfedale filling in these now huge gulleys and gauging how that affects river-flow. But it is taking time and - another guess - I would wager that the research is under-funded, like almost all rural projects.

But if floods like Helmsley and Boscastle actually concentrate the minds of the pen pushers in Whitehall and our county halls, something of value might be gained. Country folk have always known that you mess with Old Mother Nature at your peril. Would townies please listen, mark and learn!

Your views:

  • I am a geography teacher and I've been using the gripping in the moors as an "A" level case study. I found your article very useful. Is gripping sometimes used to encourage growth of grasses to enable greater head of sheep per hectare? (another example of misguided "land improvement" where the interference in natural systems has been counter productive)

    Peter Walsh - Tonbridge, Kent

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