We must be resilient

The Redwood Blog
Published:  20 January, 2015
Mike Redwood

This week I sat on little chairs in a primary school and was taught the importance of the word resilience. For the best part of thirty years I have lived on the 32m contour not so far from the River Cary that is one of three rivers that run to the Severn Estuary through 600 square kilometres of very low level land called the Somerset Levels in England. 

With a natural clay barrier near to the sea these levels have flooded with the winter rains every year for many millennia. Except for the last 50 years. This is because the locals have built up the river levels to way above sea level and tidal so the rain that falls on the 2400 sq km of surrounding hills hurries straight out to sea without creating floods.

This has generally worked well and many people established year round farming, other businesses, and putting up retirement homes assuming they would always be flood free. But in the summer of 2012 and the winter of 2013-14 they were hit by two huge floods as unprecedented amounts of rain rushed down from the hills and met high tides being driven inland by strong gales. The rivers overtopped and breached land the area was flooded. The high river banks meant the flood water could not drain away as it would have in years gone by.

Now we are having an inquest. Although some help can be given it is recognised that there is "more energy in the climate": we are set for more periods of intense powerful rain and long droughts so guaranteeing no more floods is impossible. Indeed given the importance of the landscape the flood protection started around the 1930s was anyway very misguided. So there will be future floods and droughts and therefore the need is for resilience. An ability to survive the climate that we will have and to recover quickly.

And one item has powerfully demonstrated resilience through these two massive floods: long term natural grass. We always new that long term grassland withstood droughts well as it contains lots of natural herbs and plants with long root structures, but this is the first time I had known that it did so well in floods. Even the experts telling us about it were very surprised. Some farmers with grass they had planted themselves that was totally destroyed in the first floods reseeded straight away, and watched the grass destroyed again in the second flood. But the few who had retained their long term natural grassland did nothing; as soon as the floods subsided the grass grew back and looks as good as new.

This is significant since as we were reminded this long-term grassland is outstanding for sequestering carbon. Start ploughing the land and planting other crops, or even more grass, and you are releasing that carbon into the atmosphere. Long-term grassland is much better than normal grass as it moves the carbon deep through the roots and it then gets transferred even deeper into the subsoil, where it is not easily released. Only the sea holds more carbon. And well managed with livestock the grassland improves and works even harder at sequestering the carbon. Far more carbon than suggested greenhouse gas impacts from methane from that same livestock.

Long-term grassland is important for the planet, and should be preserved. It requires properly managed livestock grazing to work properly. That livestock gives great tasting beef and a steady supply of hides. Everyone wins. Now that is something to shout about. 

Mike Redwood

mike@internationalleathermaker.com

Follow Mike Redwood on twitter: @michaelredwood

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