Above: Cattle that were evacuated during the flooding are now back grazing on Northmoor. On the Somerset Levels each moor is unique and faces different challenges depending on what is farmed or not farmed there.
The Flooding on the Levels Action Group (FLAG) has contributed to an assessment of the impact on wildlife of last winter’s flooding in Somerset. The assessment uses a combination of observations by local people, surveys by ecological advisors, and some commissioned surveys to summarise what has happened to wildlife and habitats in the Somerset Levels and Moors as a result of the flooding in winter 2013-14.
A report has been produced by Natural England with support and input from FLAG, RSPB, Somerset Wildlife Trust, Somerset Drainage Boards Consortium, Farming & Wildlife Advisory Group South West and Bangor University. An assessment of the effects of the 2013-14 flooding on the wildlife and habitats of the Somerset Levels and Moors – is available for download at: http://publications.naturalengland.org.uk/publication/5447646168743936
The main findings are:
Grasslands reacted in two different ways to the flooding and its aftermath. Older, more established grasslands, which are also typically of greatest importance to wildlife, appear to have recovered well. More recently established grasslands were either badly damaged or destroyed.
Wildlife in ditches appears to have survived the flooding and water beetles, dragonflies and ditch plants have largely been unaffected.
There is a concern that the flooding might have resulted in some aquatic invasive species (e.g. floating pennywort) spread beyond their previous range. This will need to be monitored.
The numbers of waterfowl and wading birds remained about average for February, with the floods attracting significantly more of some species, notably ducks, but seeming to displace others, such as golden plover and teal.
Numbers of breeding waders showed a slight dip in 2014, compared to 2012 and 2013, but were still higher than 2009.
There seems to have been no significant impact on soil, and the earthworm population is recovering quickly.
There is anecdotal evidence of reduced numbers of small mammals, insects and birds which are not wetland specialists in some areas. A local decline in insects may have affected the breeding success of some countryside birds. For example, many people reported that swallows in particular had reduced in number in summer 2014 in some areas of the Somerset Levels.
The report also expresses concerns regarding the impact of uncontrolled and extreme flooding on farm businesses which need to be economically viable in order to achieve high value wildlife outcomes for the area.
Gavin Sadler, Co-Founder - Flooding on the Levels Action Group (FLAG), said; "The Somerset Levels is rich in wildlife and biodiversity. To let future flooding events destroy this area would be to destroy a unique and beautiful place that could never again be recaptured. This report shows that although nature can cope with some extreme events, much life was also lost. This is a man-made environment which we need to make sure is man-managed. The Flooding on the Levels Action Group want to see farmers, landowners, wildlife organisations and the various agencies working together to ensure that our wetland areas are teeming with wildlife but in a sustainable way so that future generations can work, live and enjoy the wildlife of this unique landscape that we call our home."
Mark Jones of Natural England in the South West, said: “The winter 2013-14 flooding of the Somerset Levels and Moors severely impacted communities, property, transport infrastructure, tourism and agriculture. The effects of the devastating floods in these sectors continue to be documented.
“As there has also been interest regarding the impact on the wildlife of the area, we thought it was timely to pull together this assessment. We are very grateful to all the organisations and individuals who have contributed information. The partnership involved in drawing up this assessment hopes that this report will make a useful contribution to our understanding of the situation.
“Concern remains regarding the serious impact of the flooding on the extensive livestock industry, which needs to be viable in order to achieve high value wildlife outcomes for the area.”
Richard Archer, speaking for the RSPB in Somerset said; “The Levels are internationally important in winter for ducks, swans and wading birds, which come here in huge numbers from across northern Europe. Fortunately, they are resilient and well-adapted to floodplain life. However, because they prefer shallow to deep water we saw many birds leaving traditional sites, like West Sedgemoor, when the water levels rose too high and moving to nearby shallower-flooded areas. Through surveys, we were pleased to see that most water birds, although they moved around locally, stayed put on the Levels throughout the floods.
“The impact of the floods on farmers was of great concern to us – many of our farmer neighbours are good friends, and it was distressing to see how many struggled with the floods. Although many improved grasslands were damaged or destroyed by the winter floods, it was good to see that many of the older species-rich pastures and hay meadows responded well. As a consequence, breeding waders - birds such as snipe and curlew – which rely on these traditional swards, were able to enjoy a good breeding season.”
Cath Mowat, from Somerset Wildlife Trust, said: “The wetland species of greatest conservation concern are specialists which means they are adapted to survive winter flooding. Spring and summer floods, however, can be much more damaging for wildlife as these occur during the breeding season. Good quality wildlife habitat is more resilient to winter flooding and our hay meadows that were underwater have bounced back this summer providing vital forage for bees and other pollinators.”
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