Working with nature stems the flooding in Somerset

Prize-winning Holnicote river project shows how letting nature do its thing brings a world of benefits – not least helping to end the misery of flooding

Prize-winning Holnicote river project shows how letting nature do its thing brings a world of benefits – not least helping to end the misery of flooding
Holnicote: flood meadows are vital for controlling flows. Pic: Nigel Hester, NT

“We are showing that flood risk can be significantly reduced in addition to providing a range of environmental gains for people, wildlife and natural resources”

Earlier this year, the Holnicote restoration project won the best catchment-wide UK Rivers Prize and was a highly commended overall finalist – deservedly so. The way it has reduced flood risks to communities on the National Trust’s Holnicote estate in Somerset has been remarkable.

We spoke to Nigel Hester the project manager to find out more about what the National Trust-led team has been doing and what others can learn from the experience.

“It has been really exciting to lead a project that works at a landscape scale, from source to sea,” Nigel told us. “By working with nature, we are showing that flood risk can be significantly reduced in addition to providing a range of environmental gains for people, wildlife and natural resources, especially soils and water.”

The project in the River Aller and Horner Water catchments – funded by the Department for Environment Food & Rural Affairs (Defra) – has delivered a rich seam of data. And it clearly shows how working with natural processes benefits people and the environment.

From the outset, Nigel explained, the Trust was interested in a wide range of benefits, not just flood risk reduction. It also wanted the best possible data, so it invested around two years gathering baseline information and installing the right equipment before rolling out interventions. 

Various measures have been used to slow flows and store water. These include techniques such as moorland restoration in the headwaters, re-creating flood meadows and making woody dams that mimic the activity of beavers – natural-born rewilders.

And while the project hasn’t explicitly set out to “rewild” the landscape, much of it does have a place on the rewilding scale because it has focused on restoring natural processes to enable a better functioning environment for people and wildlife.

Unprecedented rainfall, no flooding

As for flooding, the work has greatly improved the situation downstream. During the unprecedented rainfall in Somerset in winter 2013, there was no flooding in villages that regularly suffered in the past. There was also a 10 per cent reduction in flood peak in late December 2013 on an already saturated catchment containing up to 90 properties at risk.

Although the National Trust owns 90 per cent of the catchment area, much of this is managed by 14 tenant farmers. A key aspect of the scheme, therefore, has been engagement, education and working closely with the local community. Consequently, public perception has changed and support has increased.

One key success factor has been having a dedicated, locally-based project manager who knows the area well. Nigel and his team were also able to set up new tools and techniques while ensuring good involvement of partners and the local community.

Small-scale measures in combination have had a significant effect where a single scheme would not necessarily have worked or been economical.

The data and modelling tools generated by the project are immensely helpful for those driving forward natural flood management techniques in other areas. The scheme has shown clear benefits which will inform decisions on other restoration/rewilding projects that deliver biodiversity and address flooding issues.

It’s a really impressive project and such an inspiration to see a whole catchment approach working for both people and wildlife. Well done to all those involved.

Watch Nigel in the video below to find out more about this impressive initiative.  

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