climate change conservation environment

How rewilding can help to stop floods

Every year flooding costs Britain around a billion pounds. As the climate warms and extreme weather events become more frequent, floods could be more common and more expensive. Severe floods in 2015 have prompted a debate about how to address this growing problem, with the government publishing a new National Flood Resilience Review last week. It looks at key infrastructure sites to protect, flood responses and defences. While it touches on land management, one thing it doesn’t investigate much is the opportunity to let nature prevent floods for us.

rewilding-floodsThat’s something Rewilding Britain have been working on, and their new report explains the idea. How Rewilding Reduces Flood Risk describes the processes of natural flood management, and shows that they work.

One of the key principles is that flooding causes havoc in towns, but the water has all come in from the country. To prevent it building up too fast and overwhelming urban rivers, rainfall has to be slowed down in the hills and fields. There are a number of ways to do this.

  • Low-till agriculture keeps the ground from becoming compacted. More rainfall is absorbed, rather than running off into waterways. This also helps to prevent soil erosion and fertiliser pollution, both serious issues in their own right.
  • Britain has drained most of its wetlands in order to make them agriculturally productive, but they are key in giving water somewhere to go. If storm water can be allowed to spread out into peat bogs or moorland, it can be held up and floods can be averted. Where the land is managed to drain water away, it can be as simple as filling in a few ditches.
  • Many of our rivers have been straightened and contained within embankments to make them easier to manage. Reducing embankments at strategic points allows them to flood safely, rather than channeling water down into towns. The flow of water can also be slowed with rocks or fallen trees. Beavers can help here too, as they are experts at river management. Studies have shown that beaver dams and waterworks are proven to slow rivers and reduce the height and frequency of floods downstream.
  • Trees are great at absorbing water, slowing rainfall down and storing more of it in the ground – the roots of the tree keep the ground permeable, giving water channels into the earth. Planting more trees on our barren hillsides could be one of the most useful things we could do to adapt to climate change. One study found that re-foresting 5% of our upland hills would reduce flood levels by 29%.

Rewilding Britain is particularly interested in the multiple benefits that could be created by taking the natural approach to flood management. We could plant trees and allow hillsides to revert to forest, reducing flood risk and locking away more carbon. We would create new habitats in the process, welcoming wildlife back and adding beauty and interest for us to enjoy too. By making more room for wetlands we would be re-creating environments with rich potential for biodiversity.

If there are so many benefits to these techniques, why don’t we use them more? The report suggests that most funding goes towards traditional flood defences, meaning natural solutions are overlooked and lack investment. The report has several great case studies, but there’s a real need for more test sites and funding.

Perhaps part of the problem is that when communities are flooded, it’s natural that they want to see a visible difference to river defences as a reassurance that it won’t happen again. They want to see dredging programmes re-instated, floods walls built higher, so they know that something is being done. Upstream solutions are less obvious, out of sight on smaller rivers up in the hills. Even though they are cheaper, more effective, and have multiple benefits, they are less politically appealing than large scale engineering downstream.

So there’s a need for public education about the alternatives. Farmers and landowners may need incentives to manage land and rivers differently, and we need more demonstration projects to show how it can work.


  1. As you say ‘So there’s a need for public education about the alternatives.’ – Who has the will and the means to provide it? As George Monbiot says in yesterday’s Guardian:

    ‘Disposable Planet’
    Posted: 14 Sep 2016 11:09 PM PDT

    ‘Consumerism occupies a sacred and inviolable space, while the wonders of the living world are dispensable.’

    1. Well, there will be plenty of contributions towards it from organisations putting it into practice. But I suspect that the ‘will and means’ is fairly broadly distributed in this case – thousands of little conversations rather than one big institutional one. The Rewilding Britain report is very accessible, so anyone can read that and easily get their head around the key points.

      So it’s a matter of spreading the word on blogs, on social media, in letters to local papers in flood-prone areas, and people getting in touch with their MPs to tell them about it.

      1. I feel as George M. that this is a priority matter for everyone of us, (maybe even close to critcal mass point). It needs urgent work and the usual methods you mention seem far too inadequate as these methods are slow to come to fruition.

        I would like to see the charities, NGO’s and the BBC working together to bring the urgency to the attention of all. I don’t think we can wait for our governments to realise how vital this is. We need to pressurise en masse with urgency. Again, probably idealistic!

  2. Do farmers, the NFU and DEFRA see this kind of thinking as a threat to income, livelihoods and food security I wonder? British farming is very conservative and seems to react strongly and defensively to any suggestion that changes to land management are required to deal with the multiple threats of climate change, biodiversity loss and pollution from fertilizers. I fear we face an uphill challenge is bringing about change, but the more voices heard the better!

    Brexit for all its downsides will at least offer the UK the opportunity to think again when it comes to incentives and subsidies when we come to replace CAP and I do hope we can use this to encourage more proactive land management for the sake of nature, the climate and our own well-being.

    1. The farming community is often behind the curve, that’s true. But it’s about incentives – at the moment EU subsidies rely on land being kept in a productive state. So we pay farmers to drain land, even if isn’t then used.

      As you say, leaving the EU gives us an opportunity to restructure the basis for subsidy. That could include paying farmers for flood management services, compensating them for using their land to ease pressure downstream. It’s hard to imagine the government doing that sort of thing at the moment, but the conversation about replacing EU subsidies hasn’t started yet. It will be long and interesting, and there is plenty of time for people to pitch in alternative ideas and a broader view of land use.

      1. Our ‘rulers’ have only one view of ‘productive’. Will they ever join the dots and see the ‘value’ of the whole picture?

      2. Couldn’t agree more Jeremy. Whilst the powers that be have a very narrow view of how our agricultural land should be used, views can be changed. I understand that the RSPB is working on increasing water retention on Saddleworth Moor, close to where I live. Whilst the parish council is starting to talk to the Environment Agency about other measures that can be adopted locally. The fact that these things are happening is positive and word needs to spread.

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