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Natural flood management in future farming schemes – lessons from the Yorkshire Dales

Dr Stewart Clarke of National Trust, Dr Janet Richardson of iCASP and Dr Jennifer Armstrong of iCASP share the lessons learnt from their work on natural flood management with farmers in the Yorkshire Dales.

February 2021

In all the conversations about future farming there is a debate about what we, the public, should be paying farmers for. The Government has repeatedly stated that public funds should pay for public benefits. With flooding repeatedly hitting the headlines and hitting the lives and homes of people across the UK one of the most easily understood, and clearly appealing, benefits is slowing and storing water to help reduce flood risk.

Natural flood management (NFM) methods have become a recognised tool in the fight against flood impacts and most of the techniques such as better soil management, tree planting, installing leaky dams and wetland creation could be delivered by farmers. A recently completed project by the National Trust, the NERC-funded Integrated Catchment Solutions (iCASP) programme and Yorkshire Dales National Park has been looking at how to incorporate Natural Flood Management into a Payments for Outcomes trial. The National Trust having been running the trial with a small group of tenant farmers.

Under a Payments for Outcomes scheme (PfO) farmers are paid by results not actions. Farmers taking part in the National Trust trial are involved in monitoring these results themselves. The current trial involves farmers managing their land to benefit pollinators and soil health, we wanted to see whether NFM measures could be included as well.

First, we ran hydrological models for each farm to see where there might be opportunities to install NFM. This modelling process produced ‘opportunity maps’ which we shared with the farmers. Farmers were able to refine the maps with local knowledge about where flooding occurred and where opportunities to store water might interact with their farming operations. We also talked with the farmers about their attitudes to NFM and willingness to trial measures on their land. This work represents a small group of farmers and a particular geographical context but there are some general messages that have relevance for building NFM into future schemes.

  1. Our farmers were very interested in actions that worked to reduce flood risk; they wanted to know how installing NFM on their land could help people downstream;
  2. Modelling and opportunity maps are a starting point for a conversation. Farmers have local knowledge that can help refine maps and identify further opportunities;
  3. For farmers, NFM interventions need to work within the constraints and context of the existing farm business. Interventions that are perceived to be giving up productive land (e.g. tree planting and offline storage) are less attractive. In contrast there are some measures that have NFM benefit and can improve farm productivity (e.g. dealing with soil compaction);
  4. Farmers expressed a desire to have some control over water storage options e.g. an ability to release water from storage. Whilst this may help integrate with the farm business it clearly brings risks to the management of flooding if uncoordinated;
  5. Monitoring is a key part of NFM but, if farmers are expected to participate (as in PfO), this requirement needs to be costed into any payment schemes. Payment should contribute to covering the time input, materials needed and any training required.

Much of this points to the need for good advice and a dialogue with farmers about NFM on their land. If future land management schemes are to deliver anything meaningful for flood risk management, it is important that ‘top-down’ modelling is combined with meaningful conversations with farmers. Our work with a small group of livestock farmers shows a willingness to consider NFM particularly if they can see the downstream benefits but it also highlights the need for clarity and long-term engagement.

Farmers need to understand what will actually happen on their land and how this will impact the farm business e.g., how long will the water stand? Monitoring at the farm level is key – there is a general lack of data on how different interventions act over different physical environments and in different conditions. Monitoring can not only feed back into model predictions of farm and catchment scale impacts but can be used to inform payment bands and to set what is realistic under different conditions. Equally, it can be used to show farmers the difference they are making – an important factor for ongoing engagement.

Overall, what we have learnt is that any future payments for Natural Flood Management cannot be based on a one-size-fits-all scheme and it must be adaptable to ensure the greatest impact. Every farm has a different land use, business structure and site-specific constraints, including historic land drainage. Farmers are keen to install NFM, however uptake will only be successful if there is ongoing two-way engagement and an understanding and appreciation of the local conditions and existing farm business. Whilst we did not explicitly explore farmer collaboration it is clear from other NFM studies that flood risk benefits are likely to be greater when interventions are applied at scale and in a coordinated way. NFM is a catchment scale approach and hence groups of farmers working together are likely to yield better results; payments should reward such collaboration.

The outputs of the project are free to download here, including the main report, a reflections document and a monitoring spreadsheet for NFM.

We thank our colleagues on the project (Elizabeth Sullivan, formerly National Trust; Helen Keep of Yorkshire Dales National Park; Jack Hirst of Yorkshire Dales River Trust) and the farmers who gave time to the work.

Stewart Clarke, Janet Richardson & Jennifer Armstrong

Dr Stewart Clarke is National Specialist - Freshwater Catchments and Estuaries at the National Trust. Dr Janet Richardson is Impact Translation Fellow at the Integrated Catchment Solutions Programme (iCASP). Dr Jennifer Armstrong is Impact Translation Fellow at the Integrated Catchment Solutions Programme (iCASP).

Follow: @nationaltrust, @YorkshireiCASP, and @yorkshire_dales

The opinions expressed in this blog are the author's and not necessarily those of the wider Link membership.