Landowner power is threatening the future of the unique
The Guardian, July 1999
Britain's most important wetland is in big trouble.
So claim environmentalists in the West Country, who
have been fighting for decades to protect the unique
landscape of the Somerset Levels from intensive farming,
overdrainage and government apathy. Now, with landowners
and conservationists flinging accusations at each other
across the drainage ditches, the Environment Agency
- the government's official conservation watchdog -
is being accused of sacrificing the remarkable environment
of the Levels to the interests of intensive farming.
The centuries-old patchwork of drained marshes, water
meadows and fens that surround Glastonbury is the only
landscape of its kind in Europe, and its 250 square
miles are wreathed in legally protected areas: 18 sites
of special scientific interest (SSSIs); European Special
Protected Areas for waterfowl; RSPB and Wildlife Trust
reserves; MAFF-designated environmentally sensitive
areas (ESAs). In addition, the majority of the area
is designated a wetland of international importance
under the Ramsar convention.
On paper, the Levels are well protected. In reality,
one major obstacle is preventing this plethora of laws
and directives from being backed up with action. That
obstacle is control of the land.
The key to the entire environment is drainage: the
Levels were under water in prehistoric times, and it
is only a complex system of drainage ditches, pumps
and sluices that makes them suitable for modern agriculture.
Whoever controls this drainage system effectively decides
to what extent the traditional, wildlife-rich wetlands
survive, and how much land is drained for arable farming.
But who does control it? The answer depends on who you
Barri Hitchin is coordinator of the Somerset Levels
Campaign, an informal group of more than 200 local people
concerned about the decline of the landscape. He is
fiercely critical of the way the environment is currently
"The sluices and dams are controlled by unaccountable
groups of local landowners, known as Internal Drainage
Boards (IDBs)," he explains. "They're an anachronism
dating back to the enclosure acts. They're stuffed with
intensive farmers, so it's in their interests to drain
the ditches down to the mud, to maintain as much farmland
as possible. In doing so, they are killing off the wildlife.
What's really outrageous is that many of them are in
receipt of MAFF grants which they're supposed to spend
on looking after the designated ESAs."
Environmentalists agree that overdrainage is the single
biggest threat to the Levels. According to the Royal
Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), the vast
numbers of overwintering wetland birds which have thronged
the area for thousands of years now thrive in only a
few reserves, and some breeding waders are in danger
of becoming locally extinct. This, says Mark Robins,
of the RSPB, is a direct result of overdrainage.
Roger Martin, director of the Somerset Wildlife Trust
(SWT), has long been critical of the IDBs. "They
are basically unaccountable," he says, "and
they regularly pump areas dry, even SSSIs. The boards
are filled with farmers;there's a built-in bias in favour
But both the Levels campaign, and the SWT direct their
heaviest criticism at the Environment Agency (EA). "They
are legally obliged, under the water resources act,
the land drainage acts and the EU birds and habitats
directives, to control the IDBs, and to ensure that
wildlife does not suffer through the activities of the
farmers," says Hitchin. "I have photographic
evidence showing that the ditches and fields are regularly
overdrained, even in nature reserves. The EA is in clear
breach of the law. For the benefit of a few landowners,
the area is being turned into a monoculture, and the
agency won't act to stop it."
Martin says: "The situation won't change until
the EA plucks up courage and starts to veto the decisions
of the drainage boards."
Naturally, the landowners see things differently. "I
don't know what people mean when they say the Levels
are overdrained; they are not," says Peter Maltby,
the farmer who chairs the Aller Moor drainage board.
Jonathan Comer, who sits on Lowbury drainage board,
says: "I'm not anti-conservation. If conservationists
want to see water levels change, they should come and
talk to us." Both stand firmly behind the right
of the IDBs to make land-use decisions. "We've
managed our affairs well for hundreds of years,"
says Maltby, "and largely, we still do."
But this may not be enough any more. As well as the
SWT, the Green Party and Friends of the Earth South-west,
who are all critical of the current management of the
Levels, English Nature and the RSPB have both expressed
disquiet about the damage being done to the ecosystem.
Hitchin is currently considering taking the EA to judicial
review for alleged breach of the law. Almost all environmentalists
agree that the EA will need to be pushed from above
if it is to confront the destructive land ownership
But would New Labour, famously nervous about crossing
swords with the rural landowning lobby, be prepared
to step in to save the Levels? Before the general election,
the then environment spokeman, Michael Meacher promised,
in a letter to Hitchin, that Labour would instruct the
EA to end damaging overdrainage. It hasn't happened.
At the EA, they say they are about to launch a major
action plan, put together, they claim, with the support
both of drainage boards and conservationists. It will
lay out strategies for wildlife protection, and will
set out recommended levels for water tables and drainage.
It will seek to prevent pollution of ditches, and to
begin restoring damaged wetlands. The key to its success,
says Martin Weiler, of the EA, will be consensus. "Of
course our job is to stand up for this very important
environment," he says. "But remember, this
is a manmade landscape. If it wasn't for farming, it
wouldn't exist. Clearly there are tensions, but in working
towards a solution, we need to take the local farming
community with us."
Yet the issue that lies at the heart of the problem
remains unsolved. What happens if the IDBs don't like
the EA's new recommended water levels? Who, ultimately,
has the final say on drainage? Weiler says that the
EA is "seeking further advice" from the government
as to its powers.
But Hitchin says: "I have written evidence that
the EA have been informed by the government exactly
what their powers are. They know they have the right
to overrule the drainage boards, but they are terrified
of doing it."
Roger Martin agrees. "Privately, the EA know
they are going to have to confront the drainage boards.
I have been seriously thinking about denouncing their
entire action plan as a fraud. If I do attach the Wildlife
Trust's name to it, it will be with a statement making
it clear that the EA will need to be prepared to get
tough with the IDBs."
The EA's task is not an easy one. Environmentalists
want to see it encouraging the spread of land-use systems
that allow wildlife to flourish outside the reserves,
such as small-scale organic farming and a revival of
the ancient willow withy industry. Meanwhile, the landowning
and farming lobbies are waiting in the wings. "The
Country Landowners Association has sent the EA a clear
message, that if it acts to affect landowners' interests
without their consent, it will take civil action,"
says Robins. "That's the line they have to tread."
So, the ball is in the EA's court. With local disquiet
about the management of the Somserset Levels growing,
it will need to prove fairly quickly that its consensual
approach will be an effective means of restoring the
landscape of the Levels, rather than simply a tightrope
act designed to mollify the landowners who have had
their own way for so long.