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Glastonbury Festival's Michael Eavis calls Environment Agency 'clowns' over Somerset flooding in Daily Mail column

By IanMat  |  Posted: January 30, 2014

Glastonbury Festival founder Michael Eavis has heavily criticised the Environment Agency in the Daily Mail over flooding in Somerset

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GLASTONBURY FESTIVAL founder Michael Eavis has blasted the Environment Agency over the absence of dredging Somerset's rivers - now flooded - through the Daily Mail.

Relying more on his dairy farmer knowledge than his pop festival roots, Mr Eavis of Worthy Farm in Pilton takes no prisoners in his column which says birds have been favoured over farmers in the handling of the country's waterways.

With his kind permission, we have been allowed to reprint it for our readers:

Honestly, the temptation to say, ‘We told you so’ is just about overwhelming, because those clowns at the Environment Agency certainly can’t say they weren’t warned.

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We told them the Somerset Levels, or Moors as we locals call them, would flood again unless they restarted dredging the rivers 12 months ago, when the Moors were flooded by last winter’s heavy rain.

And we told them again, four months ago, when I helped launch a fund to raise the £4million needed to get dredging under way.

And we’ve gone on telling them week in, week out that unless they restart dredging on the three main rivers that drain the Moors – the Parrett, the Tone and the Brue – then the Moors aren’t going to flood once every 20 years as they used to, they are going to flood every year, as they seem to be doing now.

And what have the Environment Agency done in response?

There’s been a lot of running around with sandbags and water pumps, but in terms of something meaningful that might stop it happening again? Absolutely nothing.

Environment Secretary Owen Paterson and his civil service underlings seem keener to spend millions protecting river oysters, water voles and umpteen species of birds than a single penny on protecting the hard-working farming families who are just trying to make an honest living from the land.

Birds, Mr Paterson, do a pretty good job of looking after themselves. Farmers who have been flooded out two winters running – well, they need serious help.

The Environment Agency just don’t seem to get that.

When Mr Paterson came to the area at the weekend he brought a police escort but no wellington boots. Given that he was visiting folk who haven’t been able to take their wellies off for a month, that wasn’t his cleverest move.

But let me explain why I care so passionately about the situation here in Somerset.

There will be those of you who’ve come to Glastonbury Festival, which I started in 1970 on our farm, or watched it on the telly and seen it surrounded by gently rolling hills.

And you’re quite right, Worthy Farm is not on the Moors.

But our land runs down to them and because we run a dairy farm alongside Britain’s biggest music festival we’ve always had to rent extra land on the Moors.

Now, we’re relatively lucky. That land, which we use for grazing and producing silage, is waterlogged but it’s not flooded. But a few miles down the road, we’ve got friends who are in absolutely desperate straits.

One family I know, who’ve farmed in the area for generations, were technically bankrupt last week, until the non-farming members of the family rallied round and provided them with emergency funds.

However, there will be other families – and there are at least 500 farming families in the area – who won’t be so lucky.

That’s what Mr Paterson and the Environment Agency don’t seem to get.

With many farms being flooded for the second time in two years, livelihoods are being lost and businesses being destroyed before their eyes.

And yet when Somerset County Council and Sedgemoor District Council rightly declared the flooding a major incident, some almost seemed to find it a joke.

Well, I’m sorry, Mr Paterson; I’m a Somerset man born and bred and what’s going on here is no laughing matter. It’s a disaster and that’s why this £4million fund is needed now more than ever.

What is so utterly heartbreaking, though, is that’s it’s a disaster that should have been avoided.

For decades – certainly for my entire lifetime – the low-lying Moors have relied on the dredging of the main rivers to stop the land flooding.

It wasn’t easy, with a dozen gangs – men who really knew what they were doing – keeping their mechanised excavators working seven days a week at the busiest times, but it worked.

In fact, it worked very well, delivering a valuable double benefit, with the silt that dragged from the river being deposited on the bank tops, ensuring that as the river got deeper, so the banks got higher, too.

But nearly 20 years ago, all that changed. First, the wildlife and conservation lobby steadily grew ever more influential.

Very soon, conservationists, naturalists and organisations such as the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds were the good guys and we farmers were the enemy.

As a result, the dredging was stopped and the money saved was diverted into conservation.

My estimate is that over the last two decades, the Environment Agency and related bodies have spent £40million on projects to encourage birds and other forms of wildlife on the Moors.

And now we’re seeing the consequences of those actions.

For more than 15 years, the rivers have been silting up and their flow rates have been falling – water- carrying capacity on the Tone and Parrett, for example, is said to be down by between a third and two thirds.

That’s a massive reduction and the result is inevitable.

The rivers back up, the drainage ditches – or rhynes as we call them – also back up and suddenly the rainwater has nowhere else to go.

That’s why the Moors are flooding more often but it’s also why, when they have flooded, the water hangs around for so long.

Thanks to the silted rivers, it can’t go anywhere. Before I was a festival organiser, I was – and remain – a Somerset dairy farmer and we have to know about drainage. Our livelihoods depend on it.

That why’s the network of ditches, streams and rivers at Worthy Farm are kept in pretty good nick. We need them to do their job and carry water off the land and into the sea.

The flooding on the Somerset Levels is on a completely different scale. It’s catastrophic and it needs action now.

Thankfully, there are signs that, albeit 20 years too late, the Environment Agency are beginning to listen.

But they’ve got to listen to the people who live and work in the area and know how to manage this unique tract of land – and I’m far from certain that they will.

The old dredging machinery – which was built to last – is still around and could be called back into service quite quickly.

The same goes for several of the former driver-operators, who are now retired but keen to do their bit to get the land they love back to doing what it does best: Growing lush grass pasture. But we have to do things properly and sensibly.

With more rain on its way, there’s no end in sight for the poor, flood-affected residents of the Moors, who have now endured almost a month with their land under water.

But as soon as it recedes and the land dries out enough to support heavy machinery, those excavators have to be set to work. After 20 years of standing idle, it’s time for the dredging to begin again.

The Environment Agency has been invited to comment

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  • Insiderinside  |  February 03 2014, 4:28PM

    Inside the Environment Agency have been exposing the failings of the Environment Agency for going on a year now: http://tinyurl.com/nwcuhv3

  • Barri  |  January 31 2014, 1:07PM

    If the cap fits Michael... Meanwhile how's your top-soil run-off - still silting up the Rivers ?