Written for a talk at the Glastonbury Conservation Society, June 2016
It is since the second world war, and to a significant extent as a result of things that happened during the second world war, that conservation issues on the Somerset Levels have come to the fore. I shall get to these issues, but first I want to go back to the 1940s.
I have written a history of the River Brue and the River Axe, but the story covers a wider area since the second world war – in fact it merges into the story of the Levels as a whole. In particular it includes the Huntspill River, which was dug in 1940; Gold Corner pumping station, which was created as part of the same scheme; and the Cripps River, which was radically altered, again as part of the same scheme.
Gold Corner is at the point where the South Drain meets the Huntspill River and also the Cripps River. The latter flows south, draining the Brue of perhaps half its flow and reducing the pressure on the tidal clyse gates at Highbridge. Up until 1940 the Cripps River flowed north, taking the flow from the South Drain into the Brue. It was reversed as part of the drainage scheme that came along with the construction of the Huntspill, to supply the new Ordnance Factory at Puriton.
The main engineering problem with constructing the Huntspill River was that it was designed to be 25 feet deep, but it was impossible to make it deeper than 16 feet: the ‘coastal clay belt’ along the seaward edge of the Levels lies on top of peat, and removing the clay causes the peat to well up under pressure from the weight of clay remaining on either side of the excavation.
As a result of this, Gold Corner pumping station had to be redesigned to become the biggest pumping station in SW England. Water from both the South Drain – which is quite substantial at this point – and the Cripps River has to be lifted up two or three meters to get it into the Huntspill. If it hadn’t been wartime, with the requirement for high explosives, I doubt whether this would ever have been done.
The Puriton Ordnance Factory was deliberately built on the edge of the Somerset Levels, so that there would be a plentiful supply of water. The Somerset Rivers Catchment Board was asked to provide a guaranteed supply to the factory of 4.5 million gallons, or 20 million litres, every day. This is roughly the equivalent of supplying 100,000 homes with domestic water.
Louis Kelting, the Catchment Board’s Chief Engineer, took the opportunity to combine this with reviving a drainage scheme first suggested in 1853: 45,000 acres are drained by the Huntspill and its related drainage works – one third of the entire Somerset wetlands.
The ordnance factory is no longer there, but the pumping station is. If it wasn’t there, or if it broke down, or if its power supply failed, the whole of the lower Brue valley from Highbridge back to somewhere near Glastonbury would be subject to frequent floods, probably – to some extent – every winter. The drainage scheme lowered the water table and enabled the development of intensive farming on the Levels and Moors.
I am not suggesting simplistically that ‘intensive farming is wrong, conservation is right’, but a balance is needed. In the 1940s and 1950s food production was at a premium and these methods were justifiable; but more recently things have clearly got out of balance: wartime food production methods continued and developed, supported by government subsidies for more and more drainage schemes, until we had the Common Market food mountains and so on in the 1980s. Enormous sums of money had been spent on farming subsidies, and on artificially maintaining the lowered water table – and now more still was spent on storing or disposing of the surplus food that was the result.
The Cripps River (flowing towards the camera). Note difference in water levels.
Now, to get onto the subject of conservation: the Ramsar Convention of 1971 was an international agreement to actively conserve wetlands, and is the legal basis for conservation initiatives on the Somerset Levels and other wetlands.
Signatories committed themselves to land use policies that would “Promote as far as possible the ‘wise use’ of wetlands”.
‘Wise use’ is defined as “Sustainable utilisation for the benefit of mankind in a way compatible with the maintenance of the natural properties of the ecosystem”.
‘Sustainable utilisation’ in turn is defined as “That which meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”.
Since 1971 this has been, and remains, the UK government’s position in terms of international law. How this matches up against what has actually been done is an interesting story.
Before the second world war, conservation was not a high profile issue, though this is not to say that no interest was taken at all. As long ago as 1890, pollution of Glastonbury Mill Stream led to threats of legal action from the Upper Brue Internal Drainage Board, though none was actually taken; and in 1899 further pollution of the Mill Stream was traced to Glastonbury & Street sewage works. Similar incidents continued to occur, and in 1921 it was reported that ‘pollution has been a big problem over the years, though somehow nothing seems to be done on a lasting footing’.
Practical conservation projects also go back to before the war. Half of all species of flora and fauna in the UK come from wetland habitats, and in 1915 a new hybrid species of sedge was discovered near Sharpham. In 1923 the site was visited by Professor Sir A.G.Tansley – the man credited with inventing the term ‘ecosystem’ – who recorded 98 species of flowering plants in only two hours. Supported by Professor Tansley, the Sharpham Plot was bought by the Society for the Promotion of Nature Reserves – it now belongs to the Somerset Trust for Nature Conservation, and is still preserved, though surrounded by peat workings.
In 1947 1,300 acres alongside the Mill Stream was polluted, and milk and cheese was condemned – at that time food rationing was still in place and this was serious. The tannery firms Clarks, Bailys and Morlands, with 50% government grant funding, paid for dredging the Mill Stream down to Coldharbour Bridge. This was hardly doing anything other than moving the problem on somewhere else, but in 1950 Mill Streams were put under the jurisdiction of the Rivers Boards, in this case the Somerset Rivers Board, in the hope that they could do something more effective. Since then there has been legislation to deal with such blatant pollution, but other issues have come to the fore:
The first was peat excavation and commercial exploitation – which arguably does compromise future generations, but which was steadily increasing from the 1970s onwards. In addition, lowered water tables – from both peat excavation and from pumping – causes peat shrinkage, and the soil on the Levels was literally disappearing. Wildlife habitat, especially for birds, was diminishing at what became an alarming rate.
In 1974 the new regional Wessex Water Authority purchased 100 acres of worked out peat diggings, in order to create the Avalon Lakes. This was the precursor of the much larger Avalon Marshes scheme that we know today.
In 1977, the conflict between peat extraction and conservation became a serious matter of debate for the Internal Drainage Board – which had responsibility for issuing extraction licences, at the same time as consisting largely of farmers. ‘From then on’ the Upper Brue IDB reported, ‘the question of wildlife conservation was to take a considerable amount of time, ingenuity and money to appease the conservationists’. This attitude has changed since, but at the time was indicative of the divide that existed between farmers and those who wished to conserve the countryside. Matters came to a head in the early 1980s.
Also in the 1970s, the assumption that drainage was automatically a good thing was coming into question, and in 1980 the last major drainage scheme in the area was completed, at Cross Moor, on the Axe. In 1981 the Wildlife & Countryside Act came into force; this Act has been the basis for UK legislation in this area ever since. One of its key provisions was to increase and strengthen the basis for SSSIs (Sites of Special Scientific Interest) – though it was not sufficiently clear as to how they should be implemented, nor, crucially, how farmers should be compensated for any negative effect on their income.
The Nature Conservancy Council was the body responsible for deciding which locations should have SSSI status, and it was left to them to implement this part of the Act. In 1982 the NCC sent out a memorandum to farmers and landowners who would be affected – described as being written ‘in the language of an income tax demand’: ‘In accordance with sub-section 28(2) of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, I write to advise you that the NCC is considering notification of the area indicated on the attached map.’ This led to demonstrations by angry farmers, and even the burning of effigies of conservationists.
Tom King, MP for Bridgewater, was made Environment Secretary, and his first task was to deal with this volatile situation. In this he was successful, though only by agreeing to compensate farmers on the notional basis of ‘profits foregone’.
The wetland debate in the 1970s and 1980s has probably been best documented by Jeremy Purseglove, who was himself a river engineer, and who went on to make a Channel 4 TV series and to write the accompanying book, ‘Taming the Flood’. He pointed out that this debate raised very deep questions, ‘about the abuse of technology and the misuse of public money, about the problems of a society brought up against a reduction in the quality of life through economic growth, and about the rights of individuals concerning their own property.’
Regarding the Somerset Levels, a number of things happened:
From 1986 onwards, local SSSIs were now established – at Catcott/Edington/Chilton Moor, at Shapwick Heath, and at Westhay Moor. In 1987 a large area of Levels and Moors was included in the Environmentally Sensitive Area (ESA) scheme – resulting in EU-funded subsidies for farmers who refrained from practices that would cause environmental harm. In 1988 a ‘High Water Level Area scheme’ was negotiated between the RSPB and the Wessex Water Authority; however, according to the RSPB this was undermined by the IDBs and local farmers, and was only effective where the RSPB themselves owned the land.
In 1991 the RSPB, concerned about the sharp decline in wetland birdlife and habitat, issued their hard-hitting report ‘An Internationally Important Wetland in Crisis’. In this they lobbied for return to traditional ‘extensive’ farming methods, claiming that The SSSI scheme had been woefully insufficient; that water management policy had progressively reduced the water table right across the Moors; that central government had encouraged intensive farming without due regard for conservation issues; and that all this amounted to a scandalous waste of public money, colluding in the destruction of an internationally important wildlife site.
The Wessex Water Authority’s responsibilities for the management of waterways had by now been transferred to the National Rivers Authority, and the RSPB report was followed by an NRA Strategy Document which proposed establishing Raised Water Level Areas in 8 SSSIs.
In 1992, central government revised the ESA scheme, introducing a new tier 3 – designed to give positive environmental benefit. However, this was only taken up on 7% of land included in the ESA scheme, meaning only 4% of Levels as whole.
In 1995 a new Environment Act created the Environment Agency, which was given the specific brief of promoting the aim of sustainable development. Michael Vearncombe of the Upper Brue IDB has pointed out that this made the EA ‘both gamekeeper and poacher’ – and the EA itself has expressed its difficulty in trying to satisfy different conflicting interests all at once.
In 1998 the EA issued ‘Striking the Right Balance’, a Review of the 1991 Strategy Document. Hidden away on page 10, this new document stated clearly (though not prominently) that the 1991 Strategy had failed to reverse the disastrous decline in wetland wildlife – and this appears to still be the case.
The population of breeding waders is considered to be a key indicator of the health of wetland wildlife. In 2009 a new RSPB survey showed that the breeding wader population is more or less stable, but that there is still no reverse in the decline. Although the overall population is stable, the number of breeding sites has actually continued to be reduced. Stable populations essentially only exist on land managed by voluntary organisations, such as the RSPB themselves.
There are a number of other issues, and I will finish by looking at the current situation regarding some of these:
Destruction of Peatland Archaeology – ‘The Abbot’s Way’, ancient trackway.
Reduced water levels and commercial peat extraction affect not only wildlife, but also peatland archaeology. The saturated peatlands have preserved archaeological deposits for thousands of years – but in the last few decades their destruction has been dramatic. According to archaeologist Richard Brunning, only 2 out of 11 known sites have a reasonable expectation of surviving. These are the Glastonbury Lake Village and the Sweet Track; the others, including the Meare Lake Villages, are disappearing, whilst many have been destroyed without ever being recorded at all.
Peat-free garden compost is now being promoted and peat extraction has slowed down, though it still continues.
River pollution – The River Axe near the M5
The condition of the rivers themselves is recorded by the Environment Agency, under the auspices of the EU Water Framework Directive. Most of the River Brue is classified as ‘moderate’, though the lower part of the river – where pollutants are more concentrated – is ‘poor’. Pollution is caused mainly by phosphates, 70% of which is fertiliser run-off.
The condition of waterways in the Brue & Axe catchment area has declined during ‘cycle 1’ of EU Water Framework Directive (2009-2015) – as indeed has the overall condition of waterways in the UK as a whole. The only improvements are where the source of the pollution is controlled by statutory bodies or local authorities, such as sewage treatment plants. Otherwise, the Environment Agency is powerless to do anything other than record and assess the condition of water bodies.
According to an initial Water Framework Directive statement in 2009, the aim was to have all waterways in ‘good’ condition by 2015:
‘The way in which land is managed is still having a negative impact on natural resources. Further action is needed to address diffuse pollution and other pressures in rural areas. Government will consider the introduction of further restrictions of activities and restrictions on chemicals where there is evidence that voluntary action has failed.’
In response to a request for information regarding point 3, asking what would trigger the suggested government action, the Agency made it clear that they have no power to stop farmers using chemical fertilisers, and it would be up to the government to introduce regulation, though it does not appear to have the political will to do so.
In spite of its lack of teeth, and an apparent disparity between an enormous amount of bureaucracy but very little effective action, nevertheless the Water Framework Directive is the only initiative that attempts to address waterway pollution at all.
Finally, climate change: in 2006 a well illustrated ‘coffee table’ book about the Levels was published – ‘The Somerset Wetlands, An Ever Changing Environment’. This includes contributions from a wide variety of well qualified scientists. Towards the end of the book, looking at possibilities for the future, it included photographs of banana trees, water buffalo, flamingoes, and crocodiles, graphically illustrating some of the possible effects of climate change.
Perhaps more seriously, new ways of thinking about how the wetland environment is ‘farmed’ were explored: ‘A controversial and emotive question looms about the future viability and sustainability of supporting existing farming practices in the Somerset wetlands with agricultural subsidies … Flood defence expenditure may be targeted to protect major towns.’ [Andy King, former English Nature Conservation Officer, Somerset Levels and Moors]
He points out that flood defences will become increasingly uneconomic, and alternatives to current farming, such as establishing fisheries, were suggested. Although such ideas have not become part of government policy, they do appear to have entered mainstream thinking.