A future for land use in the Lower Otter Valley - by John Varley

A future for land use in the Lower Otter Valley - talk at Budleigh Salterton Public Hall 17 March 2010

A future for land use in the Lower Otter Valley - by John Varley

Thank you for the opportunity to speak at your Annual Town Meeting.  I am delighted to be here at this very important time as society reflects on the future of land and its management from so many different angles.   I plan to talk generally about the future impacts on land use we might see here in the Lower Otter Valley over the next 20 or 30 years.  I am also going to touch on specifically one area of work the Estate is engaged in - that being our current project looking at future scenarios for land use in the light of the propensity for the area to flood.

 

As we move out of the current recession, there are major economic, agricultural and environmental challenges in front of us: further reforms to the Common Agricultural Policy in 2013; coping with the increasing impact of climate change, with changing weather and temperature patterns, more freezing and more flooding; and whilst we are tackling these, securing enough food to feed an increasing national and global population.

These are challenges that the Estate are thinking about a lot and I thank you for the opportunity to talk about some of them this evening.

Not only CAN society work together to meet challenges like these. But it MUST.

 

The Lower Otter Valley, the focus of my talk this evening, is at the heart of the Estate in East Devon and we have owned the land since 1785.  It is where the centre of operations for the whole Estate in Devon has been based for many decades and where our main in-hand organic farming operation, Clinton Farms, works from.  A number of our tenant farmers have farmed here for generations and our woodlands in the valley are recognised as being some of the finest and best managed in the country.  It is a special place and reflects one of the five core themes of how we manage the Estate - that is "Responsible Stewardship" - we hand over something to future generations in a better state than what we inherited.

 

The Estate's approach to management over the decades resulted in it being included in the East Devon Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and receiving a number of high profile nature conservation designations.  Well over 80% of the Estates' 25,000 Devon acres is either being farmed or is woodland or a nature conservation site and, with the pressures facing us today, we recognise that the privilege of ownership brings with it immense responsibility to do the right thing; so that our successors look back with pride at the development and changes we have enabled.  One thing is certain, preserving the Valley in aspic is a sub optimal strategy, and worse, it is likely to result in a whole range of unintended and undesirable consequences.  We need to look ahead, horizon scan, and start thinking about what the future may bring and what future generations of society and nature may require.

 

Food and environmental security

Looking back over 50-60 years we can see that farming has risen to the many challenges it has faced. Over this time, farming has changed dramatically with many of those changes driven by the need to provide for a growing and more prosperous, and sometimes more wasteful, population in the post war years.

 

And, towards the end of the twentieth century, society also began to rediscover the truth that the Estate and many farmers had always known: that securing production can not be done at the expense of the environment. Farming and our environment are intimately linked. Traditional farming has always, after all, been about the entrusted stewardship of the land.

 

In the 1800s land was drained in the Lower Otter Valley to provide more agricultural areas for food production.  The whole focus of land management in those days was efficient agricultural production to feed the nation.  Now, what has been without doubt 100% man made, is attracting new uses and interest, from wildlife conservation to public access.  

 

Over the coming years we need to reflect again on what we are looking to protect and what forces of nature we will seek to try to curb - especially when it comes to flooding and sea defences.  One thought might be that we should be one step ahead and look to intervene radically to find 21st Century solutions for 21st Century issues...  protecting the status quo might not be the answer; doing the unthinkable might be...

Climate change, increasing UK and global populations - the number of people in the UK is expected to grow by 20 per cent by 2050 - and changes in diet will continue to create new demands on land and environmental resources. Combined with political and economic changes and concerns over energy and food security, these will have an impact on our ability to sustain the environmental improvements we've achieved and meet the new challenges ahead.   It is absolutely essential that we look after our primary natural resources and prioritise the protection of our soil, water and biodiversity. We have a responsibility to the future; and looking after our environmental resources makes good business sense too. It isn't a competition between food security and environmental security - both are compatible because without well managed soils, a clean, secure supply of water and fully functioning ecosystems, we cannot hope to maintain production to sustain a healthy future for society and our economy.

Neither should there be conflict between the farming industry and the policy makers. Both have the same aim: safe and profitable production to meet society's needs, from land that is in good heart, whilst enhancing the environment.

 

The Lower Otter Valley demonstrates these challenges clearly.

 

Getting ready for climate change

I don't, I hope, need to remind this audience that climate change is real, and happening, and poses serious challenges to us all over the coming decades. Despite some sloppy scientific discussion at the University of East Anglia, and some mistakes about Himalayan glaciers by the IPCC, the science is overwhelmingly clear and compelling. And what we are likely to see over the next twenty or thirty years are increasingly erratic weather patterns, more extremes of heat, cold, flood and drought, more sudden deluges of rainfall, with, on the whole, drier summers and wetter winters, and substantial consequences as a result for agricultural production. The fact that the highest level of rainfall ever recorded in one location in England over a twenty-four hour period fell on Cumbria last November - causing the tragic flooding we saw in Cockermouth, Workington and Keswick - was a stark reminder for us all.   In the Lower Otter Valley, we have our fair share of extreme flooding events but, thankfully, not of the scale of Cumbria - yet.

 

We can already see wildlife following climate change - the mayfly is now found some forty miles further north than before. And warmer winters and wetter summers are thought to be a major factor in the rapid decline of pollinating insects, with UK bee populations, in particular, falling by 10-15% over the last 2 years.

 

The reliance on seasonal weather patterns means that farming will follow climate change too. This could provide opportunities for novel crops and systems; my own personal view is that we probably need to be readier to explore GM options, coupled of course with proper environmental safeguards, in adapting to the changes that the climate will bring. The range of fodder crops such as maize will move northwards and longer grazing seasons are likely. We will need to get better at storing water in winter to use in summer.  The Estate has been chosen to take part in a government project to look at how its' agricultural practices may have to adapt to take into account climate change - the data we are using is drawn from the UK's world leading database with the snappy title of "CP09",  allowing us to map temperature and rainfall across the Lower Otter based on a number of criteria and assumptions.  Our work to date assuming mid range emissions is showing low overall temperature rises and precipitation annually but noticeable seasonal shifts and increased occurrence of more extreme events.  By the 2030s the Lower Otter Valley is predicted to have increased summer temperature of 2 or 3 degrees, coupled with much reduced rainfall (around 20%).  In winter we will see much warmer, wetter periods.  The net result is a much reduced grass growing season in summer leading to serious issues for livestock grazing and in winter, whilst we will have more grass, it will be too wet to graze and / or cut for silage.  Damage to soil structure might occur leading to run off and other issues if we try to access the land with agricultural machinery or livestock.  Dairy cows may have to be kept indoors during the summer and possibly part of the winter to protect the land.  That means large new buildings, different systems and different landscapes.  Water will be a premium - new reservoirs may be needed to be constructed and old farm ponds reinstated or developed from scratch.  Water storage for farms and communities will become a big big issue.

 

But a changing climate may also bring the spread of new pests and diseases: the arrival of blue tongue from the Southern Mediterranean makes it clear that pressures are already appearing.

 

Indeed, H5N1, bird flu, has shown the close links between some animal disease and human health.  Undoubtably, we shall see more.  In North Devon two months ago we felled a young plantation of Japanese Larch to prevent the spread of a new and very dangerous disease called Pythophera - or "sudden oak death" - a misnomer - it originated in the US, travelled across EU and totally open UK borders through the horticultural trade and is now here in Devon and Cornwall.  The disease is wiping out Rhododendron in Cornwall, Bilbury on Bodmin and now larch across Devon - it appears to be an airborne fungal algae and has mutated across a wide range of species.  We are working with the Forestry Commission and Defra to stop it leaving the West Country - although it is thought to be in Scotland.  Our Forest Manager is looking to model its impact across Devon by working with the Met Office using their predictive modelling techniques.  It is only a matter of time before we spot it here in the Lower Otter Valley.  It's not just plantations - garden trees, hedgerows and bushes will all be at risk.

 

Corsican Pine, which we have in this valley and is ideally suited to the changing climate we expect to see over the next fifty years, is now going down with a disease called Red Band Needle Blight - it will all be wiped out in the next few years.  We won't be planting any more of it.  Suddenly Eucalyptus is looking like an interesting species to plant in Budleigh Salterton...

 

Multiply by fifty the devastation the Lower Otter saw when all the mature hedgerow elm was killed by Dutch Elm Disease, due in part to a slow reaction by the UK government, and you have what faces this valley in the next twenty years.

 

For young deciduous trees such as oak and beech, if they survive the new and exotic diseases arriving in the Valley, they face a slow yet certain death at the hands of the grey squirrel and rapidly rising populations of Roe Deer.  In the Lower Otter Valley we have already seen signs of Fallow Deer and Red (the latter causes significant damage to crops and woodland).  Soon they will be joined by Muntjac Deer from the South East - which I understand is extremely tasty as venison goes... and loves to munch garden roses.  Deer control will become even more important in the valley not just for protecting agricultural and timber production but also to protect urban gardens and prevent road traffic accidents!  Whose responsibility will this become?

 

We will need to be aware of changes like this when we look at changes to regulation, for example what climate change might mean for the Nitrates Directive Action Programme measures in future: will farms need less storage, or more, in the face of an uncertain climate?   We think that more storage will be required.  And will the rather arbitrary designation of current closed periods for the spreading of manures make any sense in a future of more erratic weather and temperature? We may well need to encourage our Government to have serious discussions with our European partners about the need to climate-proof some parts of the framework of regulation we have to operate.

 

In adapting to the impacts of climate change, farming can also help us to manage flood risk and water supply - this will be essential as we predict demand for irrigation will increase by 25 per cent over the next ten years. New tools and techniques are becoming available, nano-technology for example as well as the use of satellites, IT and other tools to support precision farming. We need to understand the environmental implications of novel approaches in order to embrace them, and be clear as to how they will help to achieve long-term goals.   New equipment - new sights for school children looking over the farm field gate...  new opportunities for exciting and challenging - and worthwhile - careers requiring intellectual horsepower and cultural shifts from making a quick fortune in the City to contributing huge value to a contested rural society.      I don't think our educational system is geared up for any of this.

 

Adapting to the consequences of climate change is only part of the story. Farming also has a major role to play in helping to stop the causes of climate change in the first place. Farming produces seven per cent of the UK's greenhouse gas emissions but is the main source of the particularly potent greenhouse gases methane and nitrous oxide. This is something the industry - together with government and regulators - will have to address, and indeed the sector is already working on this through a voluntary approach to meeting the Greenhouse Gas Action Plan.  Clinton Farms has eliminated the use of nitrate fertilizer the main source of nitrous oxide - which produces over 300X more GHG equivalent CO2 part for part.  Clinton cows still produce methane (otherwise they would explode) - 20X more equivalent CO2.

 

But with its ability to manage soil carbon stores and to re-cycle organic materials, farming can not only begin to manage its own greenhouse gas emissions, but also to help others offset theirs. There are huge opportunities in the future for work of this kind, and we want to find ways of assisting this to happen.   The Estate is looking at small scale anaerobic digestion plants to service the electricity needs of our dairys - opportunities may exist to provide power to local communities in due course...  recycling cow slurries and silage to generate electricity and heat.  Resulting in a more efficient natural organic fertilizer and less nitrates running off fields into water courses...

 

The growing population, and climate change, will put pressure on our environmental resources with demands for food, housing, water, leisure, amenity space, and energy increasing. To meet the future needs of society, these demands have to be balanced, not allowed to compete. This will require a fresh take on how we perceive and value the environment and the services it provides.   The Estate knows that it will be developing more land over the next 30 to 50 years to meet the needs of local people and also in-migrants from other parts of the UK.  Where do we build these houses, what environmental credentials will they require, how will they be heated and powered?  Already the Estate has established one of the West Country's first "Tree Stations" or wood fuel stores in the Lower Otter - serving our own office, Devon County Council Offices in Exeter and Paignton Zoo.  We have looked at how cost effective it will be to retrofit wood fuel community heating systems to the village of Otterton - it isn't currently!  And we have considered wood fuel for new build affordable housing.

 

Balancing competing demands - flood and food

Land is a fundamentally important resource that provides a range of services from food and biomass production to supporting habitats and biodiversity to helping to regulate river flows that can help to manage flood risk. The food security debate has brought into sharp focus the apparent conflicts that arise if we see some of the services the environment provides in competition with the need to grow and nurture food.

 

It's not about farmers selling off their land for development; it is about how we value the environment and understand the range of services it provides and how we need to manage them for the long term. We need to develop better tools to help us understand what the long  term strategy should be in optimising the needs of future society. What do we want to use our land for?   

 

This brings me onto my final area - that is our project looking at future options for the Lower Otter Catchment and how we address the inevitable implications of flood and river management assets in poor condition and more unpredictable and severe weather events.

 

The history of the Lower River Otter can be seen to be a battle between man and water that has lasted for generations.

 

In the Dark Ages, trading vessels would have plied the river as far as a mile upstream - but by the 1500s, the efforts of the landowner to keep the channel navigable failed and the silting created a marshland.  It then took the brawn of French prisoners of war and some impressive civil engineering to create embankments which would turn the wet marshy valley into agricultural land.

 

But this was not a war that could be won so simply - since 1959 there have been 21 floods affecting property and roads.  Those incidents have included the substantial floods in October 2008 when a foot of hail fell in 2 hours damaging homes and businesses, blocked roads, regular inundations at the local cricket club not to mention the frequent problem of standing water on farmland remaining for days or even weeks as the embankments designed to protect actually stopped the drainage of water.

 

Last year it was decided that the time had come for a new phase of the battle is to begin.

 

In recent years the Estate has become concerned about the increasing incidence of flooding. In 2003 the Estate invested £50,000 in flood modelling and investment in a penstock to try to manage the flood water.  It has some effect but to be truly effective it require a wide number of agencies to work together and although a lot of words were spoken, not much materialised.  So, in late 2009, after the severe flooding the previous year, the Estate allocated a further budget of £30,000 and commissioned a specialist environmental consultancy firm to produce a strategic review of drainage and flood management in the valley and to put forward long term options for its future protection.

 

That's where Haycock Associates came in - a company that specialises in preventing and dealing with the aftermath of flooding by creating natural solutions.  According to founder, Dr Nick Haycock, "extreme events are our speciality".  Not surprising then, that Haycock was called in following the dramatic Boscastle flood of 2004 and has worked for many leading British and international bodies.

 

To quote Nick:

"It seems that the flood protection that has worked for years and the stability of the surrounding farmland is now unzipping itself.  Facing a future where sea levels and climate change will create more unpredictability now is a good time to look for long term solutions - solutions dictated to us by nature - not the other way round."

 

The Haycock team have used evidence from a wide variety of scientific data sets and observations from local residents and land users alongside archive material and information.  The investigation also included the mapping of the valley, looking at the topography and drainage currently in place; taking in those features such as the disused railway line and former refuse tip which have an adverse effect on the flow of floodwater in the 4km long section of valley.

 

Technology has played a major part - Haycock specialises in the creation of two dimensional models which help create a fuller understanding of flood dynamics of an area.  The team created what is known as a "digital terrain model" using a program called LisfloodM-MPI. It may not be a catchy title, but this Bristol University developed software is a powerful tool -creating detailed maps showing the rate, depth and direction of water flow through a landscape in any given rainfall and tidal conditions.

 

At the end of the investigation the report identified three main problems:-

* Insufficient drainage through the sea outfall at Salterton.

* Impedance of floodwater as it passes through the floodplain.

* Tidal influences on flooding.

 

But listing the problems being faced was only the first stage of the project - the next step was to look at possible solutions.

 

The investigation has shown that the impact of poor drainage and flooding is becoming worse and more damaging and this will be the pattern in the future as the performance of drainage becomes increasingly challenging, the sedimentation of the sea outfall gets worse and we experience increased runoff combined with higher tides.

 

If this situation is just allowed to become progressively worse, farming of the floodplain will become less viable, conservation management more demanding and recreational access more difficult.  If no action is taken then at some point, either due to fluvial flooding or tidal flooding the current embankments, which are nearly 200 year old, will fail and the resulting impact will be extensive loss of terrestrial land and access.

 

The strategic review has put forward ten detailed options which address single issues or combination of issues.  The options include phasing the retreat of agriculture from the marshes in some locations, drainage improvements in other locations and enhancing the life of some of the embanked lands through small modifications.

 

It is a fact that some of the options could raise challenges in terms of the long term management of the Lower Otter, its commercial use and as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.  Hence, the process has included a review of the proposals with key stakeholders and the development of a plan for the way forward, currently led by the Estate Property and Land Team.  Our objective is to create an exemplary project that builds on the unique history of ownership and use of this valley, and ensures it has a viable future for the Estate and the wider community.

 

In due course the report will be available on our web site and our thoughts on how the work maybe progressed over the coming months and years.

 

So, challenging times ahead.  The key to success is developing and getting agreement to a common vision.  I look forward to your contribution to the debate and achieving this aim.

 

Thank you.   ENDS                                                         17 March 2010

But our power for good or evil in this world’s affairs in a countryside is enormous

– Robert Lipscomb, Steward 1865 – 1892

Handing over something more valuable than we have today,

– Estates ethos

…and the Lord Clinton was, by the whole Council, brought to the King’s presence, who after like thanks was given, was pleased that he should be made High Admiral of England and one of his Privy Council…

– Official record of appointment of 9th Baron Clinton as Lord High Admiral for life on 4th May 1550

We are trustees for life of the countryside

– 22nd Baron Clinton, 2002

Do what you can to elevate your profession. It is an honourable one

– Robert Lipscomb, Steward 1865 – 1892