Flooding misery is a wake-up call

Living near one of the country’s mightiest rivers, you can’t help but develop a healthy respect for the elemental forces. This week, walking along the River Tyne, I’ve watched it change overnight from its usual, relatively placid guise, into a raging monster, boiling and churning towards the North Sea, snapping at everything in its wake and carrying whole trees with it.

A month’s rain fell in a day in the north-east, as the worst September storm in 30 years hit the UK. As in many other regions, severe flooding resulted, with all the human misery that ensues. For some of the people who have seen their homes and businesses wrecked, it’s déjà vu.

Tewkesbury Floods 2007

It’s the third time we’ve seen massive flooding in the region this year. The north-east isn’t normally known for its wetness – we’re in the rainshadow of the Pennines, and it’s Cumbria that gets all the precipitation. But the Tyne collects water from the vast uplands of the north Pennines and Cheviots. Where drains and other land management have interfered with the natural sponge effect of these areas, the water simply runs off too fast. It could have been a lot worse. A week earlier, and the storm would have coincided with high spring tides – and the Tyne is tidal until quite far west of Newcastle. The combination of water flowing off the hills to the west, and tidal surges from the east could have seen the floodplain areas of Tyneside, one of our major urban conurbations, totally inundated.

It’s predicted that we’ll see more flooding, and more drought, as a result of climate change. Yet houses are still being built on floodplains, with more planned, and despite best efforts of bodies like the Environment Agency, it feels as though measures for mitigation are going to be too little, too late.

At the Woodland Trust, we’ve talked a lot about the role trees could have in mitigating flooding. Trees intercept water, helping to increase soil infiltration rates. In upper catchments they can help to stagger peak flows, and if sited appropriately on floodplains they can help alleviate flooding.

It would be facile to suggest trees are the whole, or even a large part of the answer to this most complex problem. We need to look at land management across the board, both rural and urban. But trees are a part of a range of solutions, and one that is cheap and relatively easy to achieve. However, they take time to grow, and this week’s floods are yet another reminder of the urgency of the situation. That’s why the best time to plant trees was yesterday – the next best time is today.

Sian Atkinson, Conservation Communications & Evidence Adviser


About Kay Haw

Assistant Conservation Adviser, Woodland Trust. Nature is my passion, especially woods and trees which are just amazing elements of life. One day (soon) I hope we humans learn to work in harmony with Mother Earth.
This entry was posted in Climate Change, Conservation, Woodland creation and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Flooding misery is a wake-up call

  1. Pingback: Ruthin flooding: We need some answers…. and here’s one that won’t break the bank! | Woodland Matters

  2. Rod Leslie says:

    Great blog Kay ! Whilst trees aren’t the whole answer as you say, this discussion is very big and very important because up till now as a society we’ve put a lot of effort into getting water to run off faster and faster – first by removing trees, then field and forest drains and now urbanisation and all that fast-flow concrete and tarmac. And our main response has been to build very expensive ‘hard’ flood defences. They will go on playing a key role – but it has to be a role alongside a new approach to landscape scale management – at present blocked by the assumption land for farming (often heavily drained and very much part of the problem) must always have precedence. This is quite wrong – as the costs of the flooding in your photo demonstrated: that one exceptional flood cost the country more than the entire subsidy to farmers for a year !

    Rather than finding new money we should be paying farmer to farm water and save out towns and cities – and that would include new reedbeds, riverside land returned to wet meadow and, crucially, woodland because trees really do slow the flow, and whilst it may be a while before we feel the full benefit there’s a chance the new woods will be ready for the big one – which is coming, and I just hope we take action before rather than after our own, English version of the ‘Great Flood’.

    • Kay Haw says:

      Thanks Rod. Yes it is crucial we work with farmers as agriculture takes up 70% of all the land in the UK. We also need more green space and less hard surfaces in urban areas. We need to reinstate important habitats to secure ecosystem services and hopefully our future survival.

  3. Kay Haw says:

    Hi Matt, very true. Thank you for your comment!

  4. Matt Horritt says:

    And there’s also the potential to manage sediment delivery to channel using woodland – sediment can reduce channel capacity and increase flooding.

  5. Pingback: Flooding misery is a wake-up call - the Woodland Trust | The Glory of the Garden | Scoop.it

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