New farming report good for troubled wetlands

The report to the government on the future of farming in Britain, published on 29 January, is good news as far as wetland conservation is concerned, and effective wetland conservation needs the help of local farmers, speakers told a conference on 31 January celebrating World Wetlands Day.

“Water cycle integrity is crucial for sustainable development,” stated Kirsty Lewin Head of Water Policy at the RSPB. Wetlands are a crucial, multifunctional part of the water cycle, with two of their tasks being to clean water, and to store it in habitats such as bogs, buffering the system against flooding. The River Wye’s peak discharge is cut by 45% by wetlands, explained Lewin.

“Wetlands could be used along with other measures to ensure that the right amount and quality of water is in the right place at the right time,” she said.

However, in the UK, wetlands are in trouble due to drainage, development, and other short-sighted land use planning. Forty two percent of the country’s Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs) – the UK’s highest nature conservation designation, many of which are wetlands – are in an unfavourable condition, said Lewin. Within living memory, 94% of bogs have been lost, as have 75% of reedbeds, 75% of ponds, and 40% of wet grasslands, said Sarah Fowler, Head of Freshwater at English Nature.

It was generally agreed by the gathered wetland experts, however, that the new report into the future of farming, compiled by the Policy Commission on the Future of Farming and Food, brings a new sense of optimism to wetland conservation, with the recommendation of a move away from subsidies for production, towards funding for more sustainable methods of agriculture.

Another ray of hope is the new EU Water Framework Directive, which all member states must transpose into domestic law by 22 December 2003, and which requires the protection and enhancement of wetlands.

World Water Day this year marks the 31st anniversary of the signing of the Ramsar Convention in Iran, protecting important wetlands. “The UK has long been a key player in the Ramsar convention,” said Environment Minister Michael Meacher, pointing out that we now have over 160 sites designated. We must recognise the value of wetlands in providing goods and services, as well as for biodiversity, he said.

The UK has been working to remove point sources of pollution, but diffuse pollution is still a huge problem, stated the Minister. Solutions that are being looked into include the choice between asking all farmers to reduce their nitrate inputs, and asking this only of farmers in designated nitrate sensitive areas.

However, there are also new threats to wetlands, through climate change and sea level rise, said Meacher. If climate change is not controlled, more than one-eighth of the world’s wetlands will be lost by the 2080s. “We are already beginning to see the effects,” said the Minister, adding that a flexible approach is needed in order to manage the problem.

One case study of a flexible approach to wetland management is that of a scheme by the Environment Agency in the Somerset Levels and Moors, part of the Agency’s Wise Use of Floodplains Project. The 60,000 hectare region has been designated a Special Protection Area under the EU Habitats Directive and is a Ramsar wetland of international importance, representing the largest remaining area of lowland wet grassland in England. It also contains 30-35 settlements, which are dependent on flood defence, and as the area is largely based on peat soils, it also contains a considerable number of features of archaeological interest.

Unfortunately, in the 1970’s and 1980’s in order to keep the farms of the region profitable there was a move away from traditional grazing towards fodder and arable crops, resulting in drainage of the fields. In order to restore the habitat, as required under the EU Water Framework Directive, the Environment Agency has required the co-operation of the 18 autonomous drainage boards and around 2000 landowners in the region.

Until now, the Agency has been good at consulting with local people, but not good at engaging their participation, said Andy Hicklin, the Agency’s Somerset Levels and Moors Officer.

However, “local discussions have demonstrated the desire to keep the current pastoral landscape,” said Regional Conservation Officer for the Agency, Lyn Jenkins. Farmers were encouraged to participate in the planning of the project, and as a result of a more flexible approach by both conservationists and farmers considerable progress had been made.

Farmers have entered into agreements whereby they have been paid £430 per hectare per year for a ten year period to have part of their farms under raised water from the beginning of December to the end of April each year, causing the water-logging and standing pools favoured by over-wintering wildfowl and waders.

Nevertheless, “at the end of the day, it would be disingenuous to say there is not still a long way to go,” said Hicklin.

The conference was organised by the Chartered Institute of Water and Environmental Management (CIWEM).

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