The National Sheep Association (NSA) is calling for a holistic and balanced approach to flood mitigation – and one that involves the sheep industry rather than wrongly pointing the finger at a vital part of the land management jigsaw.
NSA has welcomed the acknowledgement last week by Liz Truss, Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, that solutions must be guided strongly by local knowledge. Decentralised decision-making will allow farmers, working with others in their catchment area, to use good, practical knowledge to identify the right options and manage their own land in terms of dredging ditches and clearing debris.
NSA also has no objection to the holding back of flood water in upper reaches of catchment areas, if farmers are sufficiently compensated, but argues steps must also be taken to stop the gross misunderstanding that paints sheep and farming practices as a major cause of flooding.
Phil Stocker, NSA Chief Executive, says: “The measures announced are positive steps, and I am pleased the Government has recognised that farmers and landowners have a positive role to play in tackling this issue. This recognition must continue, as it is far too often that I hear blame being wrongly placed on there being too many sheep on our hills.”
This ‘finger pointing’ is particularly difficult for sheep farmers to face when their choices on how to stock upland areas have been taken away by over-prescriptive agri-environment schemes. Mr Stocker explains: “The truth is that many of our agri-environment schemes have driven sheep off the real uplands, leading farmers to put more than they might chose on lower ground. This creates the risk of concentrating flocks over smaller areas and heavier footfall potentially compacting land.”
This is a sentiment echoed by Greg Dalton, NSA Northern Region Chairman and a sheep farmer from Wearhead, County Durham. He says: “Poorly directed agri-environment schemes in combination with foot-and-mouth in 2001 have caused a massive reduction of sheep in the true uplands. While the number of sheep in the hills has significantly reduced, the incidence of flooding has increased, so the evidence does not stack up for sheep to be blamed. At the same time, due to the absence of grazing stock, we are seeing the degradation of many upland habitats.”
NSA believes the sheep industry should form part of the flooding solution, and is definitely not the problem. Mr Stocker explains: “We need to find ways to maintain traditional methods of sheep farming in the uplands through our approach to shepherding and land management. EU policies and support should incentivise this and be focussed on broad outcomes that are mutually beneficial, rather than having narrow goals.
“In particular, NSA feels the strategic planting of mixed and predominantly native trees within a farmed landscape, rather than forestry plantations, offers a valuable solution due to their ability to increase water percolation and therefore reduce run-off. Certain grasses and herbs, trefoils and chicory could also be explored.
“We are clearly in a period of relatively rapid weather change and NSA agrees with measures to mitigate further change as far as we practically can. The sheep industry has an important role to play in this and should be consulted,” says Mr Stocker.
NSA has outlined the case for the sheep sector to be involved in future approaches to flood prevention in a letter to Liz Truss and looks forward to a partnership approach in the future.