Tap into farmers' knowledge in flooding debate

The floods devastating large areas of the country are an opportunity for the farming community to up its game in terms of communication, says Dorothy Fairburn, CLA director for the North

Flooded fields around the River Tone in Somerset
Flooded fields around the River Tone in Somerset

The terrible flooding causing destruction and distress to communities around the country is dominating the headlines and people naturally want to know why the problem appears to be getting worst.

Of course, everyone with a political axe to grind or a new book to sell has an answer, ranging from God’s punishment for gay marriage to farmers allowing sheep to graze on the uplands.

While the thought of an angry Almighty probably won’t gain much traction with the average man in the street, the idea that farmers might in some way be responsible is more believable and therefore more concerning for the people who live and work in the rural North East.

The difficulty is that farming is a highly-complex industry with many diverse and often contradictory strands, which do not translate well into 30-second sound bites or attention-grabbing headlines.

The fact that neither the farming industry nor our leaders can come up with a one-size-fits-all solution does not help.

The Prime Minister has responded vigorously to flooding in the Somerset Levels by committing to additional river dredging but many feel that this in itself will not solve the problem in the long-term.

The one undeniable fact is that it has rained a lot in recent months. Also, the Environment Agency, like every other Government department, is being squeezed to make savings and is cutting back on land drainage schemes, such as water pumping stations, in rural areas across the North.

The net result is that farmers and landowners are being asked to come up with their own solutions to help protect land from flooding and attention is inevitably going to turn “up the hill” to see what can be done to slow the flow before it reaches the lowlands.

Sadly, this is where the messages seem to have become distorted.

Hill farmers are experts in farming and managing the environment, often against a backdrop of extremely challenging conditions, but unfortunately public relations has never been high on the list of required skills for the job.

So when a slick political commentator steps in to blame modern hill farming for causing flooding,
the industry is poorly prepared to stand up for itself by responding positively and coherently on a public platform.

The standard “angry farmer” response does little to educate or advance the debate and will more likely serve to further propagate stereotypical views. So what is the answer? Well, I for one believe it lies in better communication.

We need to become more adept at explaining what farmers do and the range of benefits they deliver for society above and beyond food production.

Hill farmers in particular play a massive role in shaping and preserving our much-loved landscapes and yet all too often only ever appear in headlines when they come under fire from campaigning groups or individuals who clearly see them as easy targets for helping to pursue an agenda or raise their public profile.

Most worrying of all is that farmers seem to be becoming increasing fair game in the battle for editorial column inches – a battle we are struggling to win.

Clearly, it is in everyone’s interests to look at how upland farmers can help store water but rather than wage war via the media, it is far more productive to have an open and even-sided discussion on the topic between those interested in the countryside and those with an interest in the countryside.

Indeed, the CLA regularly lobbies and advises MPs, ministers and other decision-makers on water management issues but little, if any, of this work ever makes the headlines.

Farming alone will never be commercially viable in the more remote upland areas and yet it is generally accepted that the losses would far outweigh the gains were we to lose these unsung guardians of our heritage.

Among this small community group lies years of experience within farming families, who have worked the land for generations.

They have seen governments come and go, they have seen markets fall and rise and they have survived a plethora of well-intended but sometimes misguided “green” schemes.

Ultimately, however, hill farmers have survived for so long through a combination of hard work and resilience, underpinned by intimate knowledge of the unpredictability of their long-term mistress, Mother Nature.

The current water management crisis will not be solved by any one simple course of action and it won’t happen overnight.

I am certain, though, that far from being part of the problem, the CLA’s hill farming members have an important role to play in delivering a solution.

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