Our neighbour Philip Merricks is a farmer on Romney Marsh, 90 per cent of whose land is below sea level. The marsh would not exist without the medieval ingenuity which ‘inned’ it from the sea. Phil is therefore well placed to understand the interests of farmers on the Somerset Levels who have now been inundated for a month. But he is also a conservationist, owning and running two bird reserves, so is pro-farming and pro-wildlife, which too few are. Last week, he went to the Somerset Levels as chairman of the Hawk and Owl Trust, which has a reserve down there. He tells me that while the usual winter waterlogging is good for wildlife, what is happening in Somerset now is as terrible for wildlife as it is for farmers — too deep, too widespread, too prolonged. The half-blocked rivers have become like clogged arteries: the whole system has had a heart attack. Routine annual dredging of the Tone and the Parrett kept the balance right, but the Environment Agency stopped dredging when it came into being in 1996. The current disaster is the accumulated result of nearly 20 years of false doctrine. This also explains the EA’s reluctance to maintain coastal defences. On 6 December last year, the sea overtopped its walls in Sheppey and spread on to Phil’s Elmley National Nature Reserve. Erosion of the seawall was much worse wherever, on the landward face, the EA had not mown the grass. Strange that a government body of the 21st century understands less about the effects of water than the local farms and corporations of the 14th.
The Environment Agency’s opposition to dredging is reported, but not explained. Poor Chris Smith, the current chairman, gurgles inarticulately as if the floods were closing over his head. The answer, as with so much in the management of the environment, is ideological. Especially under its former chief executive, Lady Young of Old Scone and New Labour (I have made only half of that title up), the EA has seen human activity as the enemy. Lady Young has been quoted in Parliament as saying that she would like to place limpet mines on all the old pumping stations to get rid of them. If people are the problem, you wonder why the EA employs more than 11,000 of them. Without human intervention, the Somerset Levels would become an inland sea. Perhaps that is what the EA wants.
As the owner of a bit of ‘river frontage’ (normally a thin stream, but flooded as I write), I pay what is called a ‘scut’. (I believe the word is the origin of the phrase ‘scot-free.’) This tax takes £8.48 a year from me for the Romney Marsh Internal Drainage Board. This sensible body, which has local representation, now has only low-level responsibilities for small watercourses, because, in 1996, power tried to defy gravity and drained upwards to the EA. It is time for it to start trickling down once more.