Webinar: Environment Agency NFM work & NFM in Environmental Land Management Schemes

Gerard Stewart started the webinar, which is part of a webinar series to help practitioners share knowledge and experience in Natural Flood Management (NFM). 140 attendees dialled into the call today to hear Chris Utley from the Environment Agency give a presentation on getting the most for nature based flood risk reduction from ELMS.

Environmental Land Management Schemes (ELMS) is a 4 year, £4million research programme, carrying out novel science to improve understanding of NFM using collaborative approaches. This includes a range of NFM approaches in various catchments to improve the evidence base of NFM for practitioners.

Chris is leading on the flood risk aspects for ELMS with DEFRA. He mentioned how they need to develop sophisticated understanding on how land management and land use interact with flood risk. It is important to understand there are different types of risk, and determine who are most at risk. ELMS could be a vehicle to help landowners adapt, reduce risk and become resilient to climate change.

ELMS will transition away from basic payments, and move towards payments for public goods. This shouldn’t be a niche agri-environment scheme reaching only 5% of farmers, but  should be a catch-all of landowners and those impacted.

A recently published National FCERM strategy demonstrates mainstreaming nature based solutions, and encourages NFM as a tool of choice. It points out the importance of working with landowners and farmers to reduce risk. It also mentions creating a measure to work with farmers in low lying areas (Fens and Levels), and those areas that require large scale interventions (drainage) and how those areas might need to adapt to future changing climate and extremes. Furthermore, Net biodiversity gain and nature recovery need to be considered in project strategies.

Chris worked on the ‘Slow the Flow’ project in Stroud. These techniques can be effective for lower magnitude, higher frequency events in smaller catchments, such as fluvial land surface flooding (muddy floods and runoff events). Although larger floodplain restoration and storage is needed in higher magnitude events, slow the flow can still work in these catchments, in particular areas. We should consider the co-benefits of slowing the flow, including carbon storage, water storage, and restoring nature. This provides an opportunity to collaborate with experts from a range of backgrounds.

How does NFM influence hydrology and flows?

NFM can reduce greater runoff by increasing roughness, increasing losses through evapotranspiration, or temporary water storage and release later in the flood cycle. Currently, we are considering what actions can be input into the ELMS scheme to effect these hydrological processes. We need to consider that outcomes are not simply reducing flood risk, but also resilience, not making the situation worse, reducing number of detrimental events (depending on location and circumstance).


ELMS will be made up of 3 tiers:

  • Tier 1: Public goods, protection of soils, basic changes to tillage
  • Tier 2: targeted public goods, land management practices, land use
  • Tier 3: landscape scale land use choices

NFM in 4 broad packages

  • Landscape scale restoration and nature: land use change to create or restore habitats, to increase roughness, infiltration and evapotranspiration with no engineering. This could also include beavers which could be considered a public good in future. Farmers could be paid to have beavers on their land, as a natural management tool.
  • Farming: Changes to farming practice and land management e.g. soil/livestock/crop & land management to increase infiltration and reduce soil erosion.
  • Changing landscape heterogeneity: Minor capital NFM works to produce small changes in topography or landscape that can be effective at changing hydrology and slowing flows, e.g. leaky woody structures.
  • Large scale land use change NFM (Capital Projects): requiring significant engineering e.g. saltmarsh, managed realignment, floodplain restoration and reconnection. Create large storage or reduce erosion – permanent landscape change, requiring expertise and funding. This method has to be applied in areas where there is certainty that measures will make a big difference.

How will we prioritise or target investment?

The Environment Agency have a suite of maps for NFM and ELMS, and have developed a simple system for finding properties of higher risk in smaller catchments. Every waterbody is ranked in order to produce meaningful maps of locations where techniques would be more viable. They will also need to prioritise catchments were large scale interventions can be implemented; where coastal realignment works can overlap with shoreline management policy; and where prioritisation can be implemented for water level management.

Advice and Guidance

Guidelines would need to be put in place to determine who can build structures for NFM. Farmers, woodland owners and contractors are a vital skill resource and valuable endorsers. Technical guidance also needs to be produced, alongside packages for training, farm advisors, direct technical advice, and who is deciding where things should and shouldn’t be implemented i.e. large scale measures where there is potential to increase risk.

What could ELMS pay for?

ELMS have considered the different types of funding/organisation involvement, and which might be more relevant for different types of work. Understanding these will be key to unlocking what and how ELMS contribute to certain types of activity.

It will be difficult to link payments to certain farmers/landowners, and will be too complex to calculate the precise amount to pay a farmer. Instead, a system needs to be created to record interventions and areas that have been improved i.e. roughness, permeability and interception. Furthermore, it will be difficult to take into account long term impacts of climate on farmland.

Benefits of public goods will only materialise if all work together. We need to empower the community and involve those effected to work towards reducing their risk. Ideas for community involvement include flood groups helping with initial project development; setting up regular meetings; engaging with parish councils before and during works; engaging local landowners. This will help build a sense of stewardship of the natural environment, and work with local knowledge to help make work accessible.

NFM is a catchment wide approach and a form of land and watercourse management over the long term, with the cumulative benefit of interventions. Compromise is key, and we need to work with landowners and partners to design management practices that fit into their businesses, and that require little or no maintenance. We need to encourage co-ownership and co-design, and understand the cumulative benefits of lots of smaller interventions. We should avoid putting all efforts into 1 or 2 interventions that might be more attractive as they store lots of water, but might be more expensive and harder to implement.

Thanks to Chris for this engaging presentation on NFM and ELMS.


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