Jim Densham, Senior Land Use Policy Officer with RSPB Scotland, brings us this blog on the storms that have hit Scotland over winter and the part global warming has to play in them.

Slowing the flow of floodwater

Lapwing (Andy Hay (rspb-images.com))

This winter’s storms have felt a bit relentless. One after the other they have battered us, soaked us and dispirited us, leaving damage along the way. Flooding has affected Deeside, Dumfries & Galloway, the Borders and elsewhere. Experts predict that we are likely to be in for more and bigger storms in the future as global warming allows the atmosphere to hold more moisture.

So with more flooding likely and more homes at risk what is the best way to respond? The news analysis and comment around this year’s floods has been refreshingly different to the traditional calls for more money, concrete walls and dredging to keep water contained and moved out to sea as quickly as possible. But people don’t want ever higher flood walls running through their town – it spoils the character of a place and doesn’t always work. There is a growing acceptance by politicians and the public that we need a different way of preparing for heavy rainfall events and preventing flooding.

A BBC Landward special episode covered the issues in the aftermath of the flooding and also some of the solutions including Natural Flood Management (NFM) (from 14 minutes into the programme).

NFM is all about working with nature and natural processes – it’s about slowing the flow of water rather than getting water away as quickly as possible. NFM is not a new thing but it is now receiving more focus and in Scotland the legislation in the Flood Risk Management Act promotes NFM so now Government agencies and Local Authorities are planning to include more of these techniques around the country. Some of our own work on reserves provides NFM benefits – our Insh Marshes reserve on the Spey has been estimated to save millions of pounds in extra flood defence and maintenance costs for Aviemore. 

Insh Marshes (Andy Hay (rspb-images.com))

NFM is only part of the solution to flooding though, we will still need some concrete and river embankments in the right places, but NFM considers actions throughout the whole catchment. A BBC website nicely summed up the issues after Storm Frank but also includes a nice graphic illustrating the spread of NFM techniques currently in place in Northumberland’s Belford catchment.

Many NFM techniques create or restore habitats and therefore provide homes for nature as well as preventing flooding. Some of them do not create habitats but rather they mimic nature or allow natural processes to happen again. Examples of NFM include restoring peatland habitats in the uplands, like our work at our Airds Moss reserve in Ayrshire; constructing mini-dams with logs in upland burns; re-meandering rivers; allowing rivers to spill out temporarily onto farmland in floodplains; digging more ponds; planting trees; and putting more wetlands back into the countryside. We even need to allow beavers to do their thing, as a study this week showed they can actually help prevent flooding.

Some of the ways humans have adapted rural land, and now use it, is exacerbating flooding, e.g. straightening rivers, building houses on floodplains, keeping too many sheep on moorlands. We need to get back to working with nature rather than against it – we need to restore rivers, wetlands, floodplains and moorland in many cases. It will require changes to how farmers use and manage land, how the countryside looks, how we subsidise farmers, and even where some people live. We need to invest in nature and its natural processes knowing it can help us slow the flow and prevent flooding in a more chaotic climate.