Levels in peril


Written with input from David Taylor and Barri Hitchin. Published in Free State 2, August 1998.

In February the Environment Agency issued a “Water Level Managent Strategy Review” to coincide with a period of public consultation about water level management on the Levels. The consultation process has been seen as a step forward in itself – very few people had ever heard of the Environment Agency before their display appeared in the Town Hall – but the presentation was essentially propaganda for their established policy of continual pumping to lower the water table, rather than a real public consultation.

Environmental activists in Somerset have since attacked the Agency for failing to discharge its legal responsibility to maintain reasonable water levels on the Somerset Levels. They have also warned the Environment Agency (EA) that it may be necessary to pursue legal action if the Agency continues to drain the Levels excessively. These moves follow the failure of the water levels of the rhynes and drains to rise to their summer conservation levels on the due date, which is in breach of legislation.

On April 1st the summer penning levels should have been adopted for Kings Sedgemoor Drain and Eighteen Feet Rhyne. Penning during the summer prevents water from draining away and ensures adequate levels for wildlife conservation. However, both were still being drained down to the mud at the beginning of April.

‘An Internationally Important Wetland Area’

The Somerset Levels are an internationally important wetland area. The majority is an Environmentally Sensitive Area and it contains 15 Sites of Special Scientific Interest and suggested Specially Protected Areas or European Protected Areas. From Bridgwater Bay, stretching uop the estuary of the River Parret ad broadly inland beyond Glastonbury, it comprises 151,000 acres of land just above sea level. Flanked by inclines of the Quantock, Brendon, Blackdown and Mendip hills, in times of heavy prolonged rainfall the levels are probe to flooding.

The levels are essentially managed so as to facilitate intensive farming. This not only pollutes the water with nitrates and other chemicals, but also relies on high yield grasses such as Rye grass which have no tolerance to ‘splash conditions.’ This in turn increases the pressure to reduce the water table, to the further detriment of habitat and wildlife.

Indigenous wetland grasses have died out (or have been banished!) There is no longer any reed grown for the local thatching industry, which has to use inferior wheat straw or else go as far afield as Norfolk to import reeds; whilst willow saplings have recently been imported from Holland, grown from stock originally taken fro Somerset, because local willow saplings are no longer available.

A real wetland environment exists only in the areas where the ground level has been considerably reduced by peat workings and the land is useless for arable faring anyway. Even here it is maintained by continuous pumping, which means that it can never settle down to its own natural ecology.

The 1991 Water Resources Act, the 1991 Land Drainage Act and the 1995 Environmental Protection Act all place a duty on the bodies controlling water drainage (including the EA) not to drain the land excessively. The EA replaced the national Rivers Authority in the early 1990s, with the soecific brief to “promote the aim of sustainable development.” Water levels are moderated by the EA in liaison with the 20 Internal Drainage Boards (IDBs). These Boards consist of farmers, landowners and appointees from various other bodies.

Langport IDB, for instance, is made up of ten farmers and landowners and eight appointed members of South Somerset District Council. The suggestion is that that there is a built-in bias in favour of continuing the current drainage policy. When the EA launched its consultation document, ‘Striking the Right Balance,’ they appointed a steering committee with a 9/3 bias towards continuing the current drainage policy. The ‘Balance’ seems to be between retaining as much land as possible for agro-business, and providing wildlife reserves in the areas that nobody else any longer wants.


Almost six thousand years ago our ancestors developed a travelling lifestyle to suit the area, moving down from the hills to the levels in summer. They also laid the ‘Sweet Track,’ the oldest known trackway in the world. The Glastonbury Lake Village is evidence of a sophisticated prehistoric culture, which by the iron age period had developed trading links with places as far away as the Mediterranean.

Even in Saxon times it was still called ‘Sumersaeta’ – the land of the Summer People. Abbot Dunstan’s tenure at Glastonbury in the tenth century saw the first major changes in the landscape of the levels, with the creation of canals and comprehensive land drainage systems, and the re-routing of the river Brue. This process has continued ever since, and has reached a point now where the environmental damage is out of proportion to any agricultural benefits that may have accrued.

Legend tells us that King Arthur threw Excalibur from Pomparles Bridge, Glastonbury, into a lake. Where is this lake now, and the rest of our wetland environment?

Meare Pool, as surveyed in 1540 when one third of the floodable land in Somerset had already been reclaimed, measured five by one and a half miles; but by 300 years later it had been almost entirely drained. And with the invention of steam pumping machines in the 19th century, the levels succumbed entirely to a ‘Canute’ regime of drainage for the furtherance of agriculture.

The Threat

Modern intensive farming started during the second world war, and has since been encouraged by government and European Union subsidies. It has produced meat mountains and milk lakes and has transformed our historic environment into a nondescript, agri-business countryside.

According to the RSPB, for instance, there has been a 50% decline in our song birds over the last twenty five years due to intensive farming. On the levels the numbers of snipe, redshank and curlew are notably declining; only in the case of over-wintering birds are numbers stable or possibly increasing. These are the birds attracted by raised water level areas which, according to the EA’s own report, “are too small to make a significant difference” to the overall decline.

In August 1997, Westmoor SSSI was almost destroyed by pollution caused by intensive farming. There has been no inquiry into how such an incident occurred nor any statement from the EA as to how the Agency intend to prevent such an incident from occurring again.

And, as environmentalists point out, “All that draining, polluting, livestock abusing, tree felling and hedgerow ripping” still leaves modern farming uneconomic. Farmers cannot make a living without subsidies, and “There are many more eco-friendly ways to make a loss!”

The Political Background

Our levels environment is protected by legislation. In March 1997, shortly before the General Election, Labour’s Environment Spokesman Michael Meacher wrote that “If the low winter water levels do indeed cause an adverse effect on the wildlife resources … and the Environment Agency and the local Liberal Democrat controlled councils are breaking the Water Resources Act 1991, this is a very serious matter. A Labour Environment Secretary will ask the Environment Agency to end this process.”

He is now the Labour Environment Secretary, but since the Labour government was elected he appears to have developed amnesia. Paddy Ashdown, Liberal Democrat leader and MP for Yeovil, has said he is “unable to interfere in local issues.”

Green Party European candidate David Taylor, who lives close to the Eighteen Foot Rhine, points out that “laws exist which should help conserve the wildlife value of the Somerset levels, but there seems to be a reluctance to implement them.” In April he told the Western Gazette that “Under its legal duties the Agency has a responsibility to enhance conservation on the levels and keep the habitat in a fit state. If it isn’t done then the Green Party will consider backing legal action.”

The EA has passed this off as a ‘hollow threat’, claiming that in practice water levels may take 14 days to rise, and that anyway some of the pennings are the responsibility of the local IDBs. The Green Party disputes this, but the main issue is the overall effect of drainage policy on the levels environment, which is the Agency’s responsibility.

The EA has admitted that it has difficulty managing water levels “to the satisfaction of organisations representing environmental interest and representing agriculture.” But policies that foster the agricultural industry is not part of the EA’s duties. Conservation is.

What this means in practice us that the IDBs decide for themselves that water levels are to be managed, even when there is no flood defence risk. This can be contrary to the National Rivers Authority’s strategy and in breach of international obligations, but in the local agricultural (i.e. intensive farming) interest.

In 1991 the RSPB circulated its highly influential report on ‘An Internationally Important Wetland in Crisis,’ which identified the decline in wetland wildlife and attributed this to the continuing steady decrease in maintained water levels – and the failure of responsible bodies to react accordingly. It was clear that “IDBs have no duty to drain land or maintain water courses.” Their remit is limited to using powers granted under the 1976 Land Drainage Act for the purposes of flood defence.

“The extraordinary position of IDBs regulating drainage at local level, often under archaic constitutions and free of wider public scrutiny, places them and their often maverick behavior at the heart of the conservation problem.” The issue is still not being addressed by the EA, which continues to allow the IDBs to “exercise general supervision over all matters relating to the drainage of land, with associated environmental and recreational duties.”

The Future

The real problem is intensive farming, and the local Internal Drainage Boards which generally reflect the short-term interests of the farmers themselves. But intensive farming has no long-term future. The environment itself won’t stand it and people are turning away from its products in droves. According to the Vegetarian Society no less than a thousand people a week in this country are now converting to a vegetarian or low/non-dairy diet, and common sense tells us that we need to produce eco-friendly products and reclaim our traditional environment.

As far as the levels are concerned, the EA sidesteps this issue and suggests that the Ministry of Agriculture should produce “official guidelines on appropriate usage of land.” Not surprisingly, no such guidelines have appeared. If they were genuinely ‘appropriate’ they would inevitably run contrary to powerful vested economic interests.

The Ministry has instituted an ESA (Environmentally Sensitive Area) scheme whereby farmers can be subsidised for controlling the environmental impact of their activities. 77% of land in this scheme falls within ‘Tier 1’ (which essentially maintains current practices, as opposed to Tiers 2 and 3 which require environmental improvements). This has been shown to be of little or no advantage to wetland wildlife and its habitat, but costs the taxpayer around £1.7 million in payments to farmers.

Friends of the Earth South West, in its response to the EA’s ‘Balanced View,’ alone states unequivocally that “the only sustainable future” for agriculture is “organic farming/low intensity techniques.”

“The rich meadow herb sward … combined with the unique summer and winter wildlife, offers rich opportunities for unique product development.” They suggest financial support for organic and low intensity dairy product development and marketing; the establishment of a continental-style agricultural co-operative; and the secondment of government experts to give advice and support to land owners to facilitate transition.

They propose a serious effort at government level “to promote a positive agricultural agenda on the levels,” in contrast to “the restrictive perception of nature conservation obligations” that prevails at the moment. “The importance of the levels and moors wildlife is an agricultural marketing dream, if agriculture no longer damages that wildlife.”

“High quality, high taste, low intensity systems are the way by which farming can regain its self-esteem and its good name in the public eye. It can justify its public subsidy, and most importantly can produce the first class agricultural produce for which Somerset is rightly famous.”

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