Slowing the flow-in practice: Conversation between Hydrocitizens
So Liz, I’m really intrigued and very interested in the work that you’re doing up at Pumlumon. Particularly because I’m working along the river Leri, that has suffered severe flooding in the past, and I know that you and the Montgomeryshire Trust have got a scheme underway to alleviate some of the problems to do with flooding.
Effectively the Pumlumon Project came about because it was recognised that there was a number of threats in the Welsh uplands; threats to biodiversity, which was our first interest as a Wildlife Trust, but also threats to the way that people engage with the landscapes. Agricultural income was falling, the environment was declining, and these were all thought to be very separate things, until we started looking into the situation a bit more closely and we discovered that they were all very tightly interlinked. So the way that the land was being managed, or not managed, was having a significant impact on the quality of the environment that was up there and therefore the quality of habitat and the different types of wildlife that you would encounter. As the Montgomeryshire Wildlife Trust, we looked at it closely and decided what would be the best route to address some of these issues. The first thing we came to was that we had to work with the people who were actually managing the land themselves. So it wasn’t a matter of us as a wildlife trust coming in and working directly on the land, independent of the communities who lived there. It was something that we very much had to work on in partnership and in collaboration, so that everything we did was sustainable and viable for the long term, and wasn’t just going to be just another short-term impact, that was forgotten about in a decade or so.
Key to all
of this, the underlying theme was how water was impacting these habitats up
there both in terms of what was falling out of the sky, and how it was moving
through the land, taking away some of the nutrients, relevant to agricultural
production, but then as a consequence, polluting the rivers downstream, affecting
people’s drinking water, and the amount of water that was flowing out of the
mountains. There’s three-metre annual
rainfall in the Pumlumon mountain range, which is a significant amount of
water, if you think of three metres as being in the region of a storey and a
half of an average building. So it was very important that we addressed that
situation which is how water moves through that landscape, and the impact that it
was having on various communities, both ecological and economic, and social
communities in the area.
I wonder how things have changed then on the mountain, historically? Did it used to be different to how it is today?
The biggest difference is probably how people have interacted with the mountain and the surrounding hillsides and the lowlands. There used to be much more of a people-based community up in the mountains. People would move their stock up into the mountains in the summertime, and take them off in the winter. There were many more people living up there and engaging with that landscape, so in some ways being able to react to the changes that were taking place environmentally much more quickly. Nowadays it’s much more a case of people taking their stock up and leaving them there for long periods of time, and not necessarily living up there with them and then taking them off and moving entirely into the villages and towns downstream. So whereas you used to have a community of people who were migrating between the lowlands and uplands with their stock, it is only the stock who are migrating these days, and the type of stock was changing as well. So whereas in the past you would have had a mix of cattle and sheep, now it is predominantly sheep, because of the cost of managing cattle, and of course, bovine tuberculosis is a big issue with moving animals about.
The Welsh Government or UK Government’s incentives, post-war, were all about food production, and so that had two impacts on the upland landscape. Firstly, there was more pressure for sheep-based meat production because it’s a much quicker turnaround than cattle and it’s a much lower intensive system. Secondly, you were trying to change the habitat that is present in the uplands, so that they were more productive for this grazing animal, effectively draining some of these very, very wet habitats, drying them out, so that grasses could become a much more dominant member of that community, grasses being what the sheep were eating.
So here we have a model of what happens when we get three metres of rain, falling on the uplands, and without anything to take up that water, perhaps you can show us what the consequences would be?
Sure, what we have is a model that we created to demonstrate how water moves through the landscape. (Describes how this works with the visual aid of the model- which at first doesn’t absorb any water- and with a watering can). As you can see if I pour water, straight from the heavens, on to these very flat habitats, it just flows straight off . (Demonstrates how ‘houses’ underneath are flooded as a consequence) This is the worst-case scenario in terms of what the habitat would look without any absorption properties whatsoever. (She then uses pieces of felt to represent how peat can function in this system). Peat soil is effectively decaying sphagnum mosses, and what happens is because these habitats are very wet, you end up having an anaerobic digestion of this plant material, and that happens over centuries. It’s not something that happens quickly, and it’s not something that happens in a matter of days; these are centuries of peat bog accumulation, in these very wet, warmish, environments. They build up, and build up, and in some places in the Pumlumon hills you can have up to seven metres of peat. There is a need to restore these very drained peat-bogs so that they can start absorbing some of that water, rather than just stopping that flow, because this isn’t a concrete dam; it’s just slowing the flow, and that slowing is so essential to how it will affect downstream communities.
Crucially, it isn’t just what’s going on in the uplands that will have an impact on how that water moves through the landscape. If you think of the gullies that surround a lot of our upland rivers and streams at the moment they just tend to be scree, and shingle, there’s not much vegetation, but that’s a combination of the fact that we’ve had a lot of mining history in the area, so it’s altered a lot of the chemical constituents in the surrounding landscape, but also because sheep have been allowed free access across most of the mountain, which means that they will selectively pick out little trees as they start to grow up. However, if you exclude stock from these very agriculturally marginal areas, then you can have gully woodlands coming up. Trees have very complex and deep rooting systems and what that effectively means is that when water flows through the landscape, if you’ve got tree roots either through gully woodlands or hedgerows, then it slows the flow of the water, and a significant amount of that water is taken up by the trees themselves.
Gully Woodlands can help to prevent flooding. Video Still: Sara Penrhyn Jones, July 30th, 2015
There are a whole range of solutions that you can look at in terms of ensuring that the water flowing off the mountain slows in its flow, and a lot of that nutrient uptake that would have been washed into the sea actually gets taken up by the surrounding communities. But also crucial to the solution is a permeable agricultural landscape. As you get down into the lowlands, if the soil compaction in the surrounding agricultural fields is quite low and the root penetration of the grasses and the plants within the agricultural grassland is quite deep, then that in turn will play its part in terms of slowing the flow of the water and the movement of that nutrient through the system. (She demonstrates that a more diverse landscape in terms of the habitat features and the health of the ecology improves the absorption now taking place, and reduces flooding downstream). Although not perfect, we have a healthier, more robust environment, that is providing a service to the communities downstream, in terms of how that water is managed as it moves through the landscape, slowing the flow, taking the peaks off those flooding events, and enabling those nutrients that are coming off the mountainside, to be absorbed by some of those communities on the mountainside, but also the communities down in the agricultural landscape.
Working to protect houses downstream, which themselves can also help to manage water responsibly. Video Still: Sara Penrhyn Jones, July 30th 2015.
How do you think we can make these communities more aware of the work that you are doing, and what part might they play?
I think the key thing is to make sure that we engage at every level, so at the moment we spend a lot of time working with the landowning community, working with farmers directly, but you’re absolutely right. The next step is to bring in the people who live in those towns and villages, that are being impacted by flooding events, or by impacts on their water quality, and explaining to them what it is that we do. We can actually work with them to make a difference as well, because it’s not just what happens in the uplands, it’s about what you can do downstream, whether its ensuring that your septic tank is emptied, or whether it’s making sure that your garden is not just a concrete slab, but allows water to flow. It’s also being more clever about where we build structures, so being aware of the environment that surrounds you, so that you’re working with nature, rather than working against it.
So we’ve talked a little bit about individuals perhaps taking some more responsibility for taking up water, growing things rather than perhaps concreting over things, do you think there’s a place for community initiative?
The most important message that we’d like to get across is that all individuals have a role to play in the water as it moves through their community and the way that they use water. It's exactly the same argument that people make about the energy sector, which is that the responsibility doesn’t necessarily have to be in the power generation but in how people use that power. It means being aware of when they’re wasting power and only using it when they need it. The exact same principle applies to water, so for example, when you’re watering your garden, it makes a lot of sense to have water butts, which catch rainfall off your roof rather than pulling the water out of your tap. Or, for example, if you have a garden that doesn’t have bedding that is very permeable to water, so a lot of people like to put down big tiles, which obviously are nice to walk on, but the water then doesn’t permeate through the ground. It forces the water into different places. There’s lots of really innovative ways that you can make your garden more permeable, no matter how big that garden is, whether it’s only a couple of square metres or whether you have a whole acre to play with. Trees and shrubs are really crucial as well. You can get advice about from your local wildlife trust or your local community organisations about these deep-rooting, complex-rooting system plants. When you’re talking about wildlife gardening, it isn’t just about the species that are at the top of the soil but how they interact with the soil beneath the surface as well that is so crucial. We have to become much more responsible and aware of the water we use, and how we treat the water that’s around us, to make us much more engaged with our local environments.
Is it surprising that the Montgomeryshire wildlife trust is getting involved? You’d normally expect you to be involved in wildlife and habitat management, but isn't this stepping outside your remit a little?
In the past the wildlife trusts origin was all based on protecting those remnants of the wild landscapes that surrounds us, and our remit is still very much that. However, I think that we’ve recognised over time that the nature reserve idea, those jewels in the crown, if you don’t have the crown, the jewels are just scattered across the landscape. So we need to have a joined up network, of healthy, robust environments, gardens, and farmland, and all aspects of the environment form part of this. So we’ve recognised that we’ve have to work outside the boundaries of our nature reserves, with farmers, with private landowners, to maximise the gain for the environment. What’s really crucial is that now the scientific community is presenting strong arguments that a healthy and robust natural environment is very, very tightly related to a healthy and robust economy, and that of course then has significant effects on our social environment. So it’s all very much inter-related. We as a wildlife trust – it’ s no longer just about what’s outdoors- it’s about how people engage with that landscape, and the quality of their lives, as well.
How do we get more people aware of what’s happening upstream do you think?
I think it’s a consequence of who we are as creatures that we tend to focus on our own patch, rather than looking wider and you can see that replicated in the way that we manage our municipal services and even the way that the wildlife trusts are set up, that they’re very locally based. That has it’s benefits because then people can be tied into what’s going on, local to them, but it also removes from the potential to see the bigger picture, and I think that one of the key ways that you can engage local people in the bigger picture is through models like this, because you can see that if you start to take things away, at a local level, it has an impact, directly, on you, but you don’t necessarily understand the impacts that are going on upstream, and they are crucial to how you are being affected at a local level.
So we’ve been talking mainly about water and how water moves through the system but a key element of the uplands and associated in particular with peaty solids is the amount of carbon moving through the system as well. Peat bogs have an accumulation of carbon, over centuries, that if released into the environment, would have a significant impact on the UK greenhouse gas emissions, and the way that release occurs, is through that drainage, that post-war agricultural modification of the uplands to drain these landscapes and make them more grassy for sheep production. What happens is the layers of that peat bog become exposed and as they expose they dry out and dissolve into that water that’s moving through the system, and that carbon gets released through that dissolution in to the water, so along with all those nutrients, that flow of water down into the lowlands, you ‘re getting all this carbon being released as well. If you restore, if you reverse that process, block up those ditches, and enhance the quality of that habitat, that carbon that is at risk of being released, is locked away and prevented from being emitted, and crucially, more and more carbon starts to accumulate because the natural process of growth and decay in peat bogs has been restored.
How can people support the Montgomeryshire Wildlife Trust?
The Montgomeryshire Wildlife Trust is leading on this Pumlumon project. However, our wildlife trusts throughout the UK (there are 47 of us, and we’re usually quite local and county based) are delivering that message of a high-quality environment resulting in high-quality habitat for wildlife, but for people too. If you want to become involved with your local wildlife trust, whether you live in Montgomeryshire, Ceredigion, or elsewhere in the UK, then the best thing to do is become a member, get involved, find out what we’re doing. There’s lots of advice and support, for example with the wildlife gardening, and how to become more water-aware that we can offer you, and you can work with us. If you don’t want to become a member, it’s just having access to those resources, information, that can enable you to do something on your own piece of ground, that will help you support this initiative and the wider environment.