Go to Google Maps and type in Lechlade – the Cotswold town at the start of the navigable Thames. Instead of looking at it on the map, click the ‘satellite’ button in the top right-hand corner of the screen for an aerial photograph, and follow the river west towards its source near Kemble in Gloucestershire or east towards Oxford. You may notice something that is so commonplace in British river systems most people ignore it: the woods, marshes and wetlands are all but gone. Farmers have ploughed fields up to the banks. Because there is nothing – or next to nothing – to soak up the rain, water and silt flows straight off the bare fields into the river and heads downstream.
In a marvellous series of articles for the Guardian, George Monbiot has explained how public money has turned the southern England into a funnel. This morning’s shows his ability to range from hydrology, to economics, to the idiocies of Brussels. It also shows a love of the British countryside, which to my mind makes his writing so appealing. Six weeks before the floods arrived, he writes:
…a scientific journal called Soil Use and Management published a paper warning that disaster was brewing. Surface water run-off in south-west England, where the Somerset Levels are situated, was reaching a critical point. Thanks to a wholesale change in the way the land is cultivated, at 38% of the sites the researchers investigated, the water – instead of percolating into the ground – is now pouring off the fields.
Farmers have been ploughing land that was previously untilled and switching from spring to winter sowing, leaving the soil bare during the rainy season. Worst of all is the shift towards growing maize, whose cultivated area in this country has risen from 1,400 hectares to 160,000 since 1970.
Maize, grown to feed animals and the bio-fuel racket rather than people, is an awful crop. The last Labour government warned that the soil stays bare before and after Maize is harvested, without the stubble or weeds required to bind it. ‘Wherever possible,’ it urged, ‘avoid growing forage maize on high and very high erosion risk areas.’ But in the interests of deregulation and getting the state off the back of businesses and all the other thoughtless slogans that appeal to the British right, and, of course, at the prompting of the NFU, the coalition removed Labour’s restrictions of the planting of maize, and gave a specific exemption for maize cultivation from all soil conservation measures.
You might have entertained the naive belief that in handing out billions to wealthy landowners we would get something in return. Something other than endless whining from the National Farmers’ Union. But so successfully has policy been captured in this country that Defra – which used to stand for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs – now means Doing Everything Farmers’ Representatives Ask. We pay £3.6bn a year for the privilege of having our wildlife exterminated, our hills grazed bare, our rivers polluted and our sitting rooms flooded.
In a previous piece, which has become deservedly famous, Monbiot described how farmers could plant belts of trees to soak up water in uplands; and how they could allow flooding upstream. British development workers recommend these very strategies when they dispense British aid in the poor world. But when they try to bring that sound advice home, they run into the Common Agricultural Policy, which gives public money to farmers who clear unwanted vegetation from their land.
Monbiot recognises that reforesting and allowing rivers to follow their natural courses upstream will require taxpayers to compensate farmers. Fair enough. I would go further and say we should compensate farmers for the loss of some valuable agricultural land by allowing genetically modified crops. The rage against them was one of the maddest of millennial manias, up there with MMR causes autism. But if you want to allow GM crops or to change agricultural subsidies you run into the EU. I am surprised that conservative Eurosceptics are not concerned about what Brussels is doing to the countryside. But then there is a section of the British right that has become the tools of agribusiness. They are Conservatives who no longer wish to conserve.
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