Natural Flood Management: Land Manager’s perspective

Today NERC held a webinar, with Dr Stewart Clarke (National Trust) presenting on Natural Flood Management (NFM) and the land manager’s perspective. Stewart opened his presentation by outlining what NFM means, including slowing the flow, temporarily storing it, and filtering water in wetlands and floodplains to try and improve water quality.

National Trust are a major landowner (250,000ha), and look to implement catchment management and landscape scale solutions to achieve multiple benefits including nature recovery. They focus on nature, people and climate, aiming to create more ‘nature friendly’ farmland’. NFM solutions include better soil management, storage water options on a catchment scale, and improved roughness.

NFM should be part of an integrated approach to flood risk management. It could reduce flood risk for smaller, more frequent floods; complement hard engineering structures in high risk areas; help reduce the need for raising or upgrading flood defences; complement working with natural processes to manage flood and coastal erosion; and provide a range of additional environmental and social benefits including spaces for recreation and better land management.

Stewart went on to mention how National Trust have been implementing NFM. This includes generic measures such as creating priority habitat and better soil management working with tenant farmers, as well as targeted measures such as river restoration and runoff attenuation features such as leaky dams. These more targeted, bespoke approaches should be focused in catchments with high risk communities. As well as this, National Trust aim to plant 20m trees by 2030, and encourage natural regeneration.


A couple of specific examples include:

Holnicote NFM pilot, Exmoor (Stage 0 and beavers)

The 2007 summer floods lead to the initiation of pilot schemes on a landscape scale, funded by DEFRA. Upland work included agricultural land management to restore peat and store water locally, as well as work in wooded river valleys where trees were felled and left along watercourses in appropriate positions for natural rejuvenation. As well as this, there was some work with farmers to encourage them to alleviate soil compaction by altering their practices. There was significant funding for monitoring on this project, which is key to analysing progress.

Stroud Rural SuDs project, funded by Regional Flood and Coastal Committee

This project incorporated engineered debris dams to benefit flood risk and water quality alongside woodland habitat management. This has developed into a great demonstration site for possibly NFM techniques, and inspired lots of other initiatives with similar approaches.

Hardcastle Crags

This is a steep valley which repeatedly floods. Local residents have taken up the task to tackle their own flood risk, and the project involved lots of local volunteers. Techniques involved integrated woodland management with some NFM work. Leaky dam structures were installed and gully stuffing took place to slow the flow whilst adding dead wood habitat.

Stage 0 River Restoration (floodplain reconnection)

Riverlands is a programme of catchment management projects across the country. This project looks at natural process-led restoration, builds on previous NFM pilot schemes, and looks to incorporate Stage 0, possibly introduce beavers, or mimic the behaviour of beavers on the habitat. Incorporating Stage 0 allows floodplains to be reconnected to their watercourse, allowing the water to spread laterally onto the landscape, both slowing the flow and developing wetland habitats.

Stewart mentioned another project to take place on the River Aller. It is difficult to see the river at the existing site, but it is a single channel with simple hydrology and poor biodiversity. The channel transports water and sediment quickly through the landscape, so there is significant potential to slow the flow at this site. Below shows an artist conceptual image of what the site could look like in the future.

Stewart touched on the concept of beavers as natural engineers, and the flood risk impacts they can help alleviate. They also help create complex wetted habitats, as well as filter sediments which would otherwise be quickly transported downstream. Beavers have a huge impact on hydrological processes at their dam sites. One research project in Sweden showed that beaver-created wetlands have a higher total species richness across a site, when compared to other wetlands such as man-made ponds.


National Trust have been influencing NFM policy and funding, and Stewart mentioned the DEFRA ELM test project looking at soils and pollinators. He mentioned how they collaborated with farmers to explore the constraints and attitudes towards installing NFM at farm level. This found that farmers are keen to implement NFM and wanted to know more about how they can help landowners downstream. They however stressed how they needed to know what impacts it would have on their farm business both in the short and long term. Potentially there could be a schedule for when water would sit on their land and create very wet landscapes. This needs to be coordinated so it falls outside of lambing season. This type of communication, collaboration and conversation is great to ensure the farmers have a feeling of inclusion and involvement. As well as this, monitoring needs to be carried out by landowners. Schedules should be set out to clearly show the time commitment for landowners.

Finally, Stewart mentioned how floodplains have been highlighted as there is a need for them to have a distinct status in future agri-environment schemes and more widely in development planning. These areas provide opportunities for habitat restoration, water storage and carbon, therefore we should look to restore these.

Thanks to Stewart Clarke and Gerard Stewart for running this webinar, and everyone at NERC involved in organising this webinar series.


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