Select Committee on Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence

Memorandum by the National Farmers' Union (FP 14)



  The National Farmers' Union (NFU) welcomes the opportunity to submit views on the new planning guidance which has been issued for consultation. We represent some 70,000 agricultural and horticultural businesses for which the issues presented by flooding, whether inland or from the sea, are of crucial importance.


  The recent storms have been the worst in 200 years in some areas and there has been extensive damage to farms and operational losses. We are compiling a report of the impact of the weather on farmers to submit to the Agricultural Minister and we welcome the Government's commitment to help.

  However, there have been a number of articles in the national media suggesting that agricultural practices are responsible for this year's floods. The main points that are being made are:

    1.  the increase in winter cereals;

    2.  overgrazing in uplands; and

    3.  increased land drainage.

  Many of these points are inaccurate for the following reasons:

Winter Cereals

  In total the area under winter wheat has only increased by 25 per cent in the past 20 years and has hardly changed since 1984. Many of the flooded areas have very little winter cereals and this year only 30 per cent of winter cereals have been sown. Also, we believe that the assumptions of enhanced run-off from winter cereal fields is based on a very limited dataset. Indeed, the experience of many farmers is that as crops such as winter wheat are sown in September/October the established root system prevents erosion by the time the autumn rains occur.

  It is also important to note that when rain falls on saturated ground it will run-off irrespective of land-use.


  We do not believe there is evidence to support the theory that this years floods have been caused (or significantly augmented) by overgrazing. Indeed, the flooded river catchments include many rivers with "undergrazed" uplands, such as the Derwent.

  However, "overgrazing" is widely perceived as a major environmental concern in upland areas. In our experience "overgrazing" covers a broad range of environmental scenarios from a few isolated cases of agricultural overstocking to concerns about the loss of regular shepherding. Undoubtedly the continuing pressure on upland farm incomes has only accentuated the loss of experienced upland shepherds, with the result that sheep flocks can become concentrated in more sensitive upland habitats. In summary, declining farm incomes and consequent restructuring cannot be disassociated from the extensive problems caused by grazing upland habitats.


  Farmland is drained to allow access and increased productivity. This practice has been carried out for hundreds of years. It is clear that land drainage will increase the peakiness of hydrographs. However, we would point out that drainage from agricultural land is slower than that from hardstanding in urban areas and that the lack of sustainable urban drainage systems (SUDS) is probably a more important factor in flooding. We would contend that the flooding in areas such as York have been significantly augmented from urban run-off.


  All human activity near river systems will have an impact on run-off however the reason for these floods is the exceptional rainfall. The NFU believes that in future the climate will become more extreme and consequently we are taking action to mitigate against both droughts and flooding.

  The NFU is in discussion with a number of NGOs over long-term proposals that will deliver a more sustainable method of flood defence such as multi-functional flood storage on farmland. It may be possible with adequate funding to recreate riparian wetlands. These could act as flood storage, de-synchronise farm run-off, increase aquifer recharge, have a biodiversity benefit and act as a barrier to diffuse pollution. However the development of any such policy would have to be fully thought through and rigorously assessed, with the full participation of the farming community, to ensure long-term sustainability of the solution and to ensure that adequate funding was in place.

Jacob Tompkins
Environment Policy Adviser

17 November 2000

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