Rewild the River Brue
Glastonbury Oracle, February 2021
When I visit the River Brue I become increasingly aware of the flood banks, built in the Middle Ages to restrain the river and to discourage it from flooding the land. This extended the grazing season, though most years the banks were overtopped and the land did flood – it is, after all, a wetland. Modern pumping and drainage schemes, however, have almost completely altered its natural state. In the two or three generations since the second world war, the water table has been steadily lowered and intensive farming has correspondingly increased.
This, of course, is our local version of a story that has been played out all across the world. The effect on wildlife – in this case wetland birds – has been devastating; chemical effluent, including run-off from agriculture, has polluted the river and reduced the numbers of fish dramatically; the peat has been disappearing from the peat moors, either through industrial extraction or through ‘wastage’ as it dries out; traditional wetland grasses have been replaced by rye grass, which goes grey and slimy and often dies in the years when nature asserts itself sufficiently to flood the land anyway; but year by year, river silt is still washed out to sea instead of fertilising the land – and we are running out of topsoil.
When I first began the River Brue Rehabilitation Board project I imagined that it could help promote schemes or even campaigns to stop the worst of this pollution and degradation. Re-wilding seemed like a more interesting idea, but politically very unlikely to actually happen. That’s what I thought with my mind, but what I have gradually realised is that I need to follow my heart. We all need to change our thinking in this way, with regard not just to the Somerset wetlands but to the whole abused and misused natural world. We need to follow the heart, to listen to the Earth. Otherwise the Earth, before very long, will no longer be able to support us. It will not be easy to achieve – but much easier than trying to live with the alternative.
The classic book about the wetlands – The Somerset Wetlands, an ever-changing environment – was published in 2006 and edited by Pat Hill-Cottingham. She understood the dangers posed by climate change and the last section of the book, about the future of the wetlands, presents the need to change farming practices as a result. Meanwhile, since 1996 the Environment Agency has included ‘managed withdrawal’ as a possible response. Nevertheless intensive farming has continued, supported not only by farm subsidies but also by increasingly sophisticated and expensive water level management schemes.
‘Adapting the Levels’, supported by Somerset County Council and the Somerset Rivers Authority, has been taking a constructive approach to climate change adaptation. The Levels are very vulnerable to sea level rise, whilst the County Council has published predictions of temperature rises and increasing rainfall that are truly alarming. None of this amounts to a shift of consciousness from mind to heart however. I believe that would mean allowing nature to take the lead, resulting in the river returning to its natural, meandering shape, a revival of wetland flora and fauna, and humans living with the restored landscape – rather than forcing it to fit a failed economic model.