The Somerset Levels, or the Somerset Levels and Moors as they are less commonly but more correctly known, is a sparsely populated coastal plain and wetland area of central Somerset, in South West England, running south from the Mendip Hills to the Blackdown Hills.The Levels occupy an area of about 160,000 acres (650 km2), corresponding broadly to the administrative district of Sedgemoor but also including the south-western part of the Mendip district. The Somerset Levels are bisected by the Polden Hills; the areas to the south are drained by the River Parrett, and the areas to the North by the rivers Axe and Brue. The Mendip Hills separate the Somerset Levels from the North Somerset Levels. The Somerset Levels consist of marine clay “levels” along the coast, and inland (often peat-based) “moors”; agriculturally, about 70 percent is used as grassland and the rest is arable. Willow and teazel are grown commercially and peat is extracted.
The Levels occupy an area of about 160,000 acres (650 km2), corresponding broadly to the administrative district of Sedgemoor but also including the south-western part of the Mendip district. The Somerset Levels are bisected by the Polden Hills; the areas to the south are drained by the River Parrett, and the areas to the North by the rivers Axe and Brue. The Mendip Hills separate the Somerset Levels from the North Somerset Levels. The Somerset Levels consist of marine clay “levels” along the coast, and inland (often peat-based) “moors”; agriculturally, about 70 percent is used as grassland and the rest is arable. Willow and teazel are grown commercially and peat is extracted.
As a result of the wetland nature of the Moors and Levels, the area contains a rich biodiversity of national and international importance. It supports a vast variety of plant and bird species and is an important feeding ground for birds. The Levels and Moors include 32 Sites of Special Scientific Interest, of which 12 are also Special Protection Areas. The area has been extensively studied for its biodiversity and heritage, and has a growing tourism industry.
People have been draining the area since before the Domesday Book. In the Middle Ages, the monasteries of Glastonbury, Athelney and Muchelney were responsible for much of the drainage. The artificial Huntspill River was constructed during the Second World War as a reservoir, although it also serves as a drainage channel. The Sowy River between the River Parrett and King’s Sedgemoor Drain was completed in 1972; water levels are managed by the Levels internal drainage boards.
The Levels have few wooded areas, just occasional willow trees. The landscape is dominated by grassland, mostly used as pasture for dairy farming with approximately 70 percent of the area being grassland and 30 percent arable. From January until May, the River Parrett provides a source of European eels (Anguilla anguilla) and young elvers, which are caught by hand netting as this is the only legal means of catching them. A series of eel passes have been built on the Parrett at the King’s Sedgemoor Drain to help this endangered species; cameras have shown 10,000 eels migrating upstream in a single night.
The Levels and Moors, as part of the West Country, was a traditional producer of cider, with individual farms having orchards and producing their own cider, known as scrumpy. However, over 60% of Somerset’s orchards have been lost in the last fifty years; and apple production occupies less than 0.4% of the land. Cider is still produced in Somerset by Thatchers Cider and Gaymer Cider Company. Other local industries that once thrived on the Levels, such as thatching (using reeds) and basket making (using willow), have been in decline since the second half of the 20th century. Combined with the recent drop in farm incomes, this poses a potential threat to the “traditional” nature of the area as a whole. Subsidies are paid to farmers who manage their land in the traditional way.
Many readers will be aware that the United Kingdom is suffering the heaviest rainfall for the time of year for the last two hundred years. The Somerset Levels and Moors (The Levels) has been particularly badly hit with the first land flooding around Christmas time and from then on it has just gone on and on.
The Levels have flooded from before the Middle Ages and people have been draining The Levels for as long as there have been people living there. The Levels flood; always have; always will.
The trouble is that this year the water which normally falls, floods then goes away fairly quickly has just kept on falling, got deeper and hasn’t gone away. It has just spread to cover a greater and greater area. The result of this is that now there are villages mostly abandoned, farms cleared of animals and people in desperation. A livestock farm with no animals, and most of these are livestock farmers, is ALWAYS a calamity because it only happens when disaster has struck. Livestock has been cleared from the farms, split up and moved to farms that can help out. Other stock has had to be sold.
The next problem will be that when the water eventually drains away the land will be dead. All the plants under the water will have died, tree roots will have drowned and the soil itself will be compacted and all the animals in the soil, the earthworms etc., will be dead. A huge effort and expense will be needed to reinstate the fertility of the land before it is any use again.
Help for The Levels has been a long time coming. When it finally hit the headlines; because of the animal movements; things have started to happen and now resources are being made available. The Environment Agency people on the ground are working hard with emergency services and military help. There is even a group of wonderful Sikhs travelling from Slough and Birmingham daily to help out, but the general feeling is too little and too late. Most of what is being done is being done by the local people themselves who have set up an organisation called FLAG (Flooding on the Levels Action Group) and I do urge you to follow their Facebook group FLAG Flooding on the Levels Action Group or Twitter feed @dredgetherivers to see what is happening and give them support.
Many people are saying that the problem is caused by the rivers not having been dredged for twenty years and I’m sure that this is a contributory factor but I’m equally certain that this is not a total solution. I suspect that in the long run as well as draining the rivers thought will be given to the uplands to slow down the run off rate of rain and that certain areas will need to flood as well. Flooding is not a bad thing unless it is like this year – too deep and too long. We are talking about a flood plain after all.
Inevitably the whole issue has become a political football. The Environment Secretary visited (eventually) and made a complete ass of himself by arriving to see floods but only wearing shoes. The Prime Minister has visited now several times and has brought his ‘Wellies’ and the loathsome Nigel Farage of UKIP trumped them both with a fine display of chest waders and the best photo opportunity. The Chair of the Environment Agency (a part time highly paid sinecure) has proved to be totally insensitive to the people suffering and while some of what he has said makes sense it was said at the wrong time. he will HAVE to go in the long run.
Now that the Thames has flooded near London and lots of very expensive houses are flooded or at risk politicians are all over the media like a rash. Even Ed Miliband the leader of the opposition was on the lunchtime news and the Labour Party has never done anything of much use for rural areas.
And that’s really what it boils down to, votes. Sadly The Levels is mostly populated by cows, and cows don’t vote.
Sorry if this has been a rant.
11 February 2014