Posted on January 8, 2024
A Norfolk cattle farmer hit by the worst flooding of his lifetime says river defences must be raised to protect waterlogged grazing marshes – as well as vulnerable homes and businesses.
Peter Gardiner, based at Catfield in the Broads, grazes beef cattle on the Brograve Level near Potter Heigham.
But he had to bring his 300-strong herd off the fields a month earlier than usual this winter – costing him thousands of pounds in extra animal feed.
That is because grazing land was left underwater for weeks following a period of prolonged heavy rainfall, exacerbated by recent storms, high tides and tidal surges.
Mr Gardiner said marshland drainage pumps have been unable to cope with the saturated ground as the River Thurne is constantly being “over-topped” during high tides – because the river walls are not being maintained at the necessary height.
Flooding on the River Thurne flood plain
He acknowledged it is a complex scenario involving climate change, tidal and dredging factors, but he believes the Environment Agency (EA) has failed to meet its responsibilities to manage flood risks on this river.
Mr Gardiner, 43, said: “I have been on the marshes all my life, and I have never seen this before. It seems like every time the tide comes in it over-tops the banks.
“There is no capacity in the drainage system to cope with this massive amount of water, and with these extremes of weather my concern would be we start to see this more regularly.
“We had to get cows off the marsh a month earlier than normal, and the waters were rising by 4-5 inches a day at one point. We had one group of animals on a dry marsh one day and the next morning they were up to their knees. It was pretty frightening, to be honest.
“I think there is a lack of maintenance on the [river] walls, and that is the EA’s responsibility, not just for farmland, but for homes and businesses as well. In some places the walls are half a metre lower than they should be.
“The rainfall in the last couple of days is quite a short-term problem. The concern going forward is we are getting these extremes of weather more frequently.
“I am certainly not blaming the EA entirely, it is a complex situation, involving extreme weather and tidal and dredging issues. But the river walls are not where they should be.”
An Environment Agency spokesman said: “The current flooding is a result of sustained water levels in the River Thurne off the back of Storms Babet, Ciaran and now Henk.
“We will work with partners to review these flood events to see how the impacts can be minimised in future. We will also continue to contribute to the Broadland Futures Initiative that looks at the area over a longer timeframe.”
This week, Storm Henk caused flooding chaos across the region – but Mr Gardiner said the problems along the River Thurne dated back to the middle of October.
That was the start of a period of extremely heavy rainfall – he recorded 220mm on his farm in October, and the regular deluges continued into November and December, compounded by storms and high tides.
Flooding on Peter Gardiner’s grazing marshes near Potter Heigham
Although Mr Gardiner’s marshes have now mostly drained, the surface water has left behind a “stagnant slimy mat of dead grass” – and his neighbour’s land is still underwater.
He fears he may have to reduce his herd size this year because he does not expect his grass to recover sufficiently to support the same number of cows in the summer.
“The way they look at the moment, I am not going to be able to graze as many cows on those marshes this year,” he said. “It will grow through again, but we are not going to have enough grass next summer for the cows we normally have on those marshes.
“So as a business we will probably have to reduce our numbers or consolidate a bit for 12 months while things recover. If this keeps happening, how can I run a business like that?”
Mr Gardiner said the flooding had also delayed the planting of many winter-sown arable crops in the area, and prevented some farmers from lifting potatoes.
Last month, the National Farmers’ Union (NFU’s) election ‘manifesto’ called on the Environment Agency to prioritise essential maintenance of flood defences and watercourses, and for farmers to be “rewarded fairly” by the government for their role in mitigating flood risk and protecting adjacent towns and cities.