The recent flooding in Northern England, Scotland and Wales was heartbreaking to watch. I am sure that the last thing those affected need right now is to listen to the rhetoric of pointscoring commentators as to who’s to blame. Sadly trying to hold one’s tongue is difficult as increasingly spurious information is widely touted across social media.
The role of trees and forests in flood mitigation is highly complex. Simply planting lots of trees, (on the uplands, riparian zones and urban areas), does not help at all, without traditional land management and innovative engineering also.
I am in the South of France at the moment helping following a catastrophic flood, it is impossible not to draw comparisons between the two events, particularly when UK work (FC Forest and Water guidelines etc.,) is being used as exemplary examples to follow. This area has seen a massive increase in tree cover since the 1960’s. With almost 70% closed canopy forest outside of towns, where once scrubby maquis on the slopes and intensive horticultural production took place elsewhere, (principally flower growing for the perfume market). This ‘forest’, rich in wild boars and much other wildlife despite the many fences, did not help prevent the catastrophic flooding because of the soil.
Post farm abandonment the natural regeneration and planting did not take account of sub surface consolidation. Such consolidation can be found in ALL human influenced landscapes. Unless tree roots can penetrate this then a severe flooding event would actually be made worse. To try and attempt to encourage every tree root to do so is frankly impossible. What isn’t impossible are plantations with 3 degree drainage, new stone walling following contours, vertidrains and best of all: The dry stone hedgerow, planted with fruiting natives.
Here in Cote d’Azur the dry stone retaining terrace walls had been left unmanaged or replaced with concrete structures (or often cement pointed themselves), which failed dramatically when the rains fell. Whilst these were highly effective slow drainage structures previously, which helped dramatically.
It is a long process to start to repair the landscape features which aided, even longer to build new to compensate for the huge increase in population and resulting infrastructure. But this process can only be made more difficult by politics. To work it has to be community driven, as it was in the past so successfully. And with proper joined up thinking – not the PR tainted point scoring we see now which muddies the water as much as the flooding itself, it is possible to gain through this process with more, much needed, sustainable forestry and opportunities for renewable energy, whilst taking into account insurance and liability which so many commentators; political, academic or NGO rarely take any notice of.
But sadly, we do have to accept that we cannot and never should relax in the believe that we can completely hold back the waters and that any commentator preaching seemingly easy solutions such as ‘Rewilding’ are just a modern Canute with an ego to match.
I went to a meeting recently with only foresters, planners, engineers and the public. Solutions were proferred, budgets tabled and everyone left to get on with it. I can’t see this happening in the UK anymore, only selected ‘stakeholders’ whose only purpose is to continue to be funded as such – but hope I am wrong?