How forestry could help tackle our flooding issues

Forestry can help slow down water run-off.
Forestry can help slow down water run-off.
Ann Fitzgerald

Ann Fitzgerald

Many discoveries are made by accident.

Take, for example, the French classic, Tarte Tatin.

The most common story of how it came about concerns a lady named Stéphanie Tatin who, in the 1880s, ran a hotel south of Paris

One day Stéphanie was making a traditional apple pie when she left the apples cooking in butter and sugar for too long. Smelling the burning, she tried to rescue the dish. She whipped up a simple pastry, draped it on top and popped it into the oven. Voilà, a classic was born.

In 1941, a Swiss engineer Georges de Mestral was on a hiking trip when he found burrs clinging to his pants and also his dog's fur. On inspection, he found the burrs had hooks which would cling to anything loop-shaped. The seeds were sown for Velcro, a combination of the words "velvet" and "crochet".

A few weeks back I attended a conference entitled Farming for a Resilient Landscape, which detailed a farmers' initiative in mid Wales named the Pontbren Project. The project began in 1997 when three neighbouring farmers came together because they realised their approach to farming wasn't working.

Like most of upland Wales, the structure of farming in Pontbren had changed during the 19th and 20th centuries. Since joining the EU, farmers had embraced various schemes which encouraged higher production, by increasing stock numbers and introducing continental breeds. Pastures were drained and reseeded and new buildings erected.

However, despite all the changes, these farmers concluded they were no better off. They were getting more for their stock but they were working harder while fertiliser and feed bills were growing. They were on a treadmill.

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This approach had moreover weakened the environment. The removal of hedges meant the landscape had become simpler, providing fewer habitats for wildlife.

Dr Tim Pagella of Bangor University explained how the farmers switched from crossbred ewes to hardier local breeds such as Welsh mountain, Lleyn and Speckled Face.

These have a lower requirement for housing but did require the establishment of shelter belts. While conifers had been widely planted previously, they now went for a range of native species including birch, rowan and alder.

Over 120,000 new trees and shrubs were planted, with 16.5km of hedges created or restored. This led to improved live weight gains for livestock with no negative economic impact on farming incomes.

But the farmers also realised that what they were doing was having other, beneficial, effects, in terms of slowing down water run-off. One day someone noticed that water running down across the grazed fields disappeared as soon as it reached the edge of the new woodland. Scientific investigation found that infiltration rates inside the woodland were 60 times those on the pasture ten metres away.

This is one of a number of significant "accidental" flood management discoveries arising from the Project. Discoveries along the same vein are now being made in the Burren and Aran LIFE projects, which I hope to return to at a later date.

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