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The flood prevention wild card

Fleeing families climbing into dinghies as their homes fill with water, and floodwater straining against walls of sandbags - these are the images that have dominated the news in recent winters. Heavy rainfall is predicted to be an annual occurrence, but we can change the way we manage land to prevent urban flooding, according to a study by environmental charity People Need Nature.

Miles King, the report’s author, said: “Extreme rainfall has become significantly more serious over the last 20 years, and the evidence points to this being a permanent change brought about by climate change.” With flooding now likely to happen in the UK every year, what changes need to be made to better protect homes and businesses?

The organisation claims that urban flooding is made worse by the way farmland is managed in flood catchment areas.

The Lake District, the Pennines, Dartmoor and Exmoor all have their part to play in preventing flooding. Often thriving with wildlife when properly managed, these uplands (high areas of land) are part of the key to preventing flooding.

Undrained bogs in the uplands act as sponges to prevent flooding downstream, but the damage done by over-grazing sheep and drainage work has created large areas of uniform grassland, where wildlife is sparse.

Rich with wildlife for most of the year, floodplain meadows have a valuable role to play in reducing downstream flooding. Many have now been destroyed, but the Floodplain Meadows Partnership - a project focusing on research, management, promotion and restoration of the meadows - has carried out research into the ones still in existence. They found that floodplain meadows can absorb and store water, which might otherwise flood low lying areas.

The report highlights a number of natural flood management techniques which can help slow the flow of water, such as woody debris dams in streams, rewetting former wetlands by blocking ditches and removing field drains, and also reintroducing beavers.

Rewilding Britain, an organisation working to restore nature across Britain, has already made recommendations in how repairing ecosystems could help prevent flooding. After the success of three trial schemes, funded by the Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs, the effectiveness of natural flood management has now been proven. The Source to Sea project in Exmoor left flooding-prone properties bone dry, even through record rainfall in winter 2013. The project involved rewetting moorland by blocking drains, creating woody debris dams and restoring floodplain meadows.

These changes won’t happen overnight. The study argues that farmers need support through public subsidies in order to make changes to the way land is managed: “There is now an urgent need to develop programmes which support farmers in slowing the flow of water from catchments, and for storing floodwater in times of flood.”

Around 5.2 million properties in England face the risk of flooding, and flood damage costs amount to around £1.1 billion a year.

As the rain falls and flood-prone communities hold their breath, can the power of nature really lessen the damage?

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