Floods, heatwaves, and poor soils mean it’s no longer business as usual

Floods, heatwaves, and poor soils mean it’s no longer business as usual
In documenting a large Sussex farm that has been returned to nature over two decades, author Isabella Tree, skilfully ties the personal experience of her family and the surrounding farm and grand house to a much broader discussion on the need to overhaul the intensive food production that has been the norm since the start of the Second World War. Picture: Thomas Lohnes

Something is awry when you find yourself stuck in a Dutch railway carriage with the thermometer in excess of 40C.

Last week, I experienced The Netherlands’ two hottest days ever.

There were no windows in this sleek new train, and the air conditioning — of course — had broken down just when it was most required.

Travelling to Belgium, two days later, the heavens opened in Brussels and the water poured along the city streets, keeping up a spectacular aquaticperformance for a number of hours.

We all have our own war stories.

Most people accept that something odd is going on with the weather.

The financial, as well as human,consequences, are already being felt in many vulnerable localities, as property insurance premiums soar and more and more householders and businesses are left without cover.

Irish people living or farming in areas exposed to flooding have suffered because of climate change.

The ‘business as usual’ approach is no longer working.

By chance, I have been wading through a book called Wilding, about a large Sussex farm that has beenreturned to nature over two decades.

The author, the aptly named Isabella Tree, skilfully ties the personal experience of her family and the surrounding farm and grand house, at Knepp, to a much broader discussion on the need to overhaul the intensive food production that has been the norm since the start of the Second World War.

This approach is driven by boosting profits for big companies.

Ms Tree says that new approaches, driven by rewilding and improved soil management, can improve flood-prevention and reduce land degradation.

Early on, she describes the huge battle waged by her husband, Charlie Burrell, to run a commercial farm on the family estate.

Between 1987 and 1999, he pursued a policy of intensification.

Dairy herds were amalgamated;infrastructure was improved; new equipment regularly introduced.

The family diversified into the production of ice cream, yoghurt, and sheep’s milk.

But their holy grail of sustained profitability could not be reached.

A large US ice cream producer landed in Britain and scooped up much of the market Mr Burrell had built up.

Then, they realised that many of the estate’s ancient oak trees were slowly succumbing to the leaching into the soil of phosphate from fertilisers.

An indictment of the nefarious influence of the fertiliser industry is at the heart of this story.

Ms Tree is fascinating about theopposition they met from neighbours, and from advocates of a traditionally managed countryside, to the rewilding programme.

Eventually, a host of experts were brought together to form a committee to back the plans.

Opinion among officials about the plans has been decidedly mixed; it has been an uphill struggle to secure funding for projects.

The couple recognised the ecological importance of wild shrubs and much-derided plants, such as ragworth, which sustain highly endangered bird and insect life.

Their views on the prospects for the agriculture sector as we have known it are pretty straightforward.

While aware that current practices are straining vital soil and waterresources, they conclude that the surge in output per acre — underway since 1940 — looks set to continue.

James Lovelock: 100-year-old author of ‘The revenge of Gaia’, which warns of a climate-related catastrophe following on from our interference with the natural world.
James Lovelock: 100-year-old author of ‘The revenge of Gaia’, which warns of a climate-related catastrophe following on from our interference with the natural world.

The amount of arable and pasture land in use is contracting, posing challenges for all but the largest farms.

This implies much greater space being made available for hedgerows and other measures aimed at promoting species diversity.

A growing number of farming experts now appear to accept that this actually makes commercial sense and that the reintroduction of species boosts soil quality and, by extension, output.

So often, we get our information on farming from sophisticated lobbyists, representing vested interest, many of them no doubt worthy.

These messages tend to downplay the cost to the environment of industrial farming, while simultaneously peddling a vision of gloom about the future of the countryside.

Tree’s book is rather more hopeful.

During a summer when flooding is impacting heavily on upland communities in our neighbouring island — and when the threat of inundation is a constant source of worry for communities here, particularly in parts of Munster and Connacht — the author’s ideas on the potential for innovative and natural flood-preventative measures merit attention.

Put starkly, she is sceptical that flooding can be contained through expensive hard-engineering projects on their own.

Ms Tree provides a degree of historical perspective.

“Controlling flows of water is a war humans have been waging... ever since they first began draining land for agriculture and improving rivers for navigation,” she writes.

The Netherlands is a case in point. In 1953, thousands died as the country’s dykes burst. The Dutch subsequently built dams, floodgates, drainage ditches, canals, and pumping stations.

In recent years, new approaches have been tried, as freshwater floods have become more frequent.

The Dutch have retreated from hard-engineering solutions towards giving back reclaimed land and restoring old marshes and wetlands.

Houses built on floodplains are being demolished. (Irish planners, developers and local authorities please take note.)

Tree estimates that the cost to Britain of flooding in 2015 alone amounted to £5bn (€5.5bn).

Pursuing her “wilding theme,” she devotes a chapter to the role of the beaver in flood management.

Trials following the impact of beaver releases on land management are currently underway in Scotland and Devon.

Several hundred of the little beasts live on Scottish rivers.

At a site in Devon, a family of beavers has created a system of channels, coppice, and ponds, which contains water flows during storms and greatly boosts populations of butterflies and dragon flies, among other species.

Across much of Europe and the US, beavers have been reintroduced in large numbers and opposition from groups, such as fishing interests, arereported to be much-reduced, with cooperation between these interests evident in places such as Bavaria.

Some of the Knepp solutions come across as frankly eccentric.

Ms Tree and Mr Burrell make a coherent case for leaving animal carcasses out on their estate, for example, but the case they make against conventional modern farming is convincing.

The author puts it succinctly: “Over the years, modern farming has reduced soil to what Elaine Ingham, one of the world’s leading microbiologists, dismisses as ‘dirt’: a sterile medium in which plants struggle to grow without artificial fertilisers. It is a self-perpetuating cycle of destruction and chemical dependence.”

Coincidentally, the great environmental scientist James Lovelock — author of the Gaia theory and The revenge of Gaia, which warns of a climate-related catastrophe following on from our interference with the natural world — recently celebrated his 100th birthday.

Mr Lovelock was once dismissed as a crank and his current views — on artificial intelligence, for example — canappear off centre, but the man has been on the money for much of his career.

The Knepp rewilding project still has its critics.

At the weekend, the distinguished Financial Times gardening writer, Robin Lane Fox, insisted, in his column, that “wilding must never replace thoughtful gardening,” adding that “its propaganda is riddled with half-truths.”

That said, Ms Tree and her team have raised issues that simply cannot be dismissed with the lofty wave of a hand.

Wilding: The Return of Nature to a British Farm, by Isabella Tree, published by Picador

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