Monday, 4 March 2013

Wetlands Under Pressure

The past three centuries have seen devastating losses of wetlands in England: fens have been drained, grazing marshes ploughed or converted to intensive agriculture, reedbeds polluted, rivers straightened and their flood plains isolated from their former flooding regime, and lowland bogs have been extensively mined for their peat. - Environment Agency.

The reason that the Environment Agency embarked on a 50 year project to 'restore England's damaged wetlands'. A worthy project on a grand scale and one that should have positive impacts for many species and should be applauded and supported.
Unfortunately we seem, at least locally, to be facing a new wave of land drainage threatening many smaller wetland sites in Northumberland. In recent weeks work designed to drain ponds and wetlands established over the last few decades has begun at three different sites, Backworth Pond, Beehive Flash and Lynemouth Flash.

These sites have a rich recent history of transient visiting birds from Red-necked Phalarope and Pectoral Sandpiper to the more mundane and humble Pied Wagtail. Each site and many more like them acting as the avian equivalent of a fly-through KFC. Individually perhaps of little importance but collectively small wetland sites such as these provide valuable oasis in our increasingly mono-crop desert-like farmland environment.

Last year as we all know was particularly wet, traditionally wet areas were even wetter than normal; the road at Bothal Pond for example is still partially under water as I write. Faced with more and more land under water and at also (at least for some) significant rent increases it's hardly surprising that land tenants wish to squeeze everything they can from the acreage they have. In at least two of the local examples (Backworth and Lynemouth) bringing the land back into a grazeable state for horses and thereby generating the maximum income from it has been cited as the reason. It is also notable that two of the sites mentioned are on land owned by Northumberland Estates the land owner cited in the linked article.
 Drainage work at Lynemouth Flash

Intervention at Backworth by North Tyneside Council and Northumberland Wildlife Trust, prompted by members of Northumberland & Tyneside Bird Club have at least temporarily brought a halt to drainage plans on a legal basis. As I understand it a dialogue is ongoing on the future of the site that may hopefully resolve its long term future. The local authorites and NWT/NTBC are also working behind the scenes on the other two sites to try and find solutions that balance the need for tenants to have land in use with the wildlife value these sites provide.

At the root of this is money, commercial land owners (not tenants), who seek to derive ever-increasing profits from their assets and seem to have little sympathy for the consequences. I'm not sure I can end this positively, too often we appear to be powerless, forced to stand by and watch the death by a thousand cuts of the natural world. It may be that the only long-term solution to maintaining valuable wildlife sites is to acquire them and bring them into sympathetic ownership but this will require us all to collectively put our money where are mouths are so to speak.

Reading one of Mark Avery's recent blogs I was struck by one of the comments "it is time we started paying land managers for what we really need – and surely that means accepting the floodwaters so many have suffered with as a legitimate land use – and getting paid for it; and, in the same way taking the money to NOT pollute our drinking water – and that extends to wildlife and open access countryside"

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