Many of the Somerset Levels's rarest species inhabit the ditches or 'rhynes' that thread the landscape. Photo: Joe Dunckley via Flickr.com.
Somerset Levels - a vision for 2030
Somerset Levels and Moors Task Force
8th February 2014
As fierce public debate rages over how to manage the Somerset Levels, a Task Force of farmers, wildlife groups, official Agencies and Councils has agreed a new 'Vision 2030' for the Levels - one the mainstream media have entirely missed ...
This new and exciting vision recognises the quality of the Somerset Levels' natural environment and places it as central to a better future for people, the economy of the area and of course nature.
A 'Vision' of what the Somerset Levels and Moors might look like in 2030 - intended to guide water and land management policies over the years ahead - has been agreed by a Task Force set up in 2013 to address the area's problems.
The Somerset Levels and Moors Task Force includes Somerset County Council, Somerset District Councils, NFU, Natural England, Somerset Wildlife Trust, Somerset Consortium of Drainage Boards, FWAG, the RSPB and the Environment Agency.
It was set up at the suggestion of former Defra environment minister, Richard Benyon, in the wake of the floods of 2012/13. These coincided with the ending of many of the conservation agreements which have protected the area for the past 28 years.
An essential first step to tackling the area's problems
Acting Chairman of the Task Force, Anthony Gibson, said that agreement on the Vision was a crucial first step in tackling the Levels' problems.
"We now know where we want to go, and that ought to give a very clear sense of direction not only to the 20 year action plan for reducing the flood risk, on which we are just embarking, but all the other policies which impinge on this very special, but very threatened area.
"The really encouraging thing is the degree of consensus which the Vision represents. We all want the Levels' landscape to remain the green grid-iron of withies, rhynes, meadows and droves that we know and love; we all want it to continue to be farmed productively, but in ways that enhance the nature conservation interest.
Speaking with a single voice
"We all want the water to be managed, so that the flood risk is reduced; we all want an even richer mix of wildlife than we've got already; and we all want a thriving local economy, built around the Levels' special qualities.
"For the first time, all of the organisations and interests in the Levels and Moors are speaking with a single voice in saying 'this is how we want the area to be.'
"The combination of the Vision and the 20 year action plan to deal with flooding does give us a priceless opportunity to get things right, for the Levels, its people, its farmers and its wildlife."
Vision 2030 widely welcomed
Agreement on the Vision has been welcomed by both farming and conservation interests.
For the NFU, South West Regional Director, Mel Squires, said: "Farmers are at the heart of the Levels' future, and will welcome this clear, positive statement of what we are all trying to achieve.
"True partnership with them must be the way forward, and we will continue to represent their interests with this collaborative action which will be necessary to turn the vision into reality."
For the RSPB, which owns several important wetland reserves on the Levels, South West Regional Director Tony Richardson, said:
"This new and exciting vision recognises the quality of the Somerset Levels' natural environment and places it as central to a better future for people, the economy of the area and of course nature. The RSPB agrees wholeheartedly and calls on others to join in a big push for this better way forward."
The next challenge - making it happen
Having agreed the Vision, the Task Force's next challenge is to put in place the actions necessary to bring it to fruition.
Some of that - like dredging the rivers or a new tailor-made agri-environment scheme - will be top down. But a lot of it will be bottom up - creating frameworks to enable local communities to shape their own destinies.
The Vision was drawn up after an initial consultation exercise carried out last summer. A draft was then produced, which was sent to every parish council in the Levels and Moors, and to all members of the Somerset Water Management Partnership - which represents a very wide cross-section of organisations, local authorities and interests, for comment.
The final version - which follows below - was agreed at a meeting of the Task Force on Friday.
A Vision for the Somerset Levels and Moors in 2030
We see the Somerset Levels and Moors in 2030 as a thriving, nature-rich wetland landscape, with grassland farming taking place on the majority of the land.
The impact of extreme weather events is being reduced by land and water management in both the upper catchments and the flood plain and by greater community resilience.
1. Extensively managed wet grassland. The landscape remains one of open pasture land divided by a matrix of ditches and rhynes, often bordered by willow trees. Extensively managed wet grassland dominates the scene with the majority of the area in agriculture in 2010 still being farmed in 2030.
2. Accommodating winter flooding. The floodplains are managed to accommodate winter flooding whilst reducing flood risk elsewhere. These flood events are widely recognised as part of the special character of the Levels and Moors.
3. Shorter duration and frequency of severe floods. The frequency and duration of severe flooding has been reduced, with a commensurate reduction in the flood risk to homes, businesses and major roads in the area.
4. Abundant high quality water and high water levels on peat moors. During the summer months there is an adequate supply and circulation of high quality irrigation water to meet the needs of the farmers and wildlife in the wetlands.
On the low-lying peat moors, water levels have been adopted which conserve peat soils and avoid the loss of carbon to the atmosphere. Water quality has improved and meets all EU requirements.
5. A world-class haven for wildlife and water fowl. The Levels and Moors are regarded as one of the great natural spectacles in the UK and Europe with a mix of diverse and valuable habitats.
Previously fragmented habitats such as fen and flower-rich meadows have been re-connected and are widely distributed. In the north of the area over 1,600 ha are managed as reed-bed, open water and bog. Elsewhere the populations of breeding waders exceed 800 pairs.
Each winter the wetlands attract large numbers of wintering wildfowl and waders regularly exceeding 130,000 birds. Wetland species such as Crane, Bittern and pollinator populations flourish.
6. Utilise the farming potential of higher land, unsustainable practices ended. Optimum use is being made of the agricultural potential of the Levels and Moors, particularly on the higher land, whilst unsustainable farming practices have been adapted or replaced to secure a robust, sustainable base to the local economy
7. A flourishing green economy for food and tourism. New businesses, including those based on 'green tourism', have developed, meeting the needs of local people and visitors alike, while brands based on the area's special qualities are helping farmers to add value to the meat, milk and other goods and services that they produce.
8. A celebration of the Levels' unique heritage. The internationally important archaeological and historic heritage of the area is protected from threats to its survival and is justly celebrated, providing a draw to visitors and a source of pride and identity to local communities.
9. Just rewards for farmers and landowners. Farmers and landowners are rewarded financially for the public benefits and ecosystem services they provide by their land management including flood risk management, coastal management, carbon storage and the natural environment.
'Somerset Levels - Vision 2030' may also be viewed on the RSPB's website.
In the version shown here the underlined headings above were inserted by The Ecologist to improve clarity.
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