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Environment chiefs called to act over Somerset Levels 'swamp'

The Environment Agency has come under fire for its ‘shambolic’ maintenance of the Somerset Levels which has seen swathes of farmland reduced to a swamp.
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Campaigners including Glastonbury founder Michael Eavis, who farms on the Levels, along with the Royal Bath and West of England Society, are calling for action before more land is forced out of production.


The area was severely affected by the 2011/12 floods with the damage compounded by a lack of maintenance of flood defences and dredging of rivers, which are now taking only 60 per cent of the water they should be able to manage.


Mr Eavis said historically, the banks were well maintained and ‘never flooded’.


“They used to have half a dozen drag lines that would be going throughout the winter,” said Mr Eavis, who milks 400 cows.


“It should be simple to introduce a system that works, but it’s all been an absolute shambles.


“Unfortunately the maintenance of the Levels has been an example of central government interference, when it should have been left to the people who know what they are doing.”


Today (Wednesday, September 18), The Royal Bath and West of England Society launched a fund to raise between £3m and £4m to dredge some of the key rivers on the levels.


The group is aiming to bring together responsible parties including landowners to ensure the work is done.


Edwin White, chairman of the Society’s Agricultural Policy Group, said: “Somerset is a very important food producing county and 15 per cent of it is now not fit for purpose.


“This situation has been allowed to develop over the last ten or 15 years, and now it’s reached a head with the heavy rains of 2011 and 2012. A wet winter this year will add to the destruction.”


Mr White has written to Prime Minister David Cameron asking for funding of £1 million to match the £300,000 from the Environment Agency, £300,000 from Somerset County Council and £400,000 already donated by the Government.


“Many of the farms and businesses in and around this area have either ceased to exist or suffered serious hardship due to flooding over a 12 month period, the effects of which included the complete closure of some ‘A’ roads for a ten week period,” he added.


“Money from this fund will not be going to individuals, but will be used to tackle the flooding issue as a whole.”


The Environment Agency (EA) said it welcomed any contributions towards the cost of maintenance.


Nick Lyness, EA flood and coastal risk manager in Wessex, said: “2012 was a year of extreme weather with the second highest rainfall on record and flooding occurring one in every five days. Our sympathy goes to all those affected by the flooding, but no one organisation can deal with all the issues on the Somerset Levels and we have to work in partnership and pool resources.


“The Environment Agency welcomes any contributions towards the cost of de-silting the rivers Tone and Parrett to improve flows and reduce flood risk. Finding a long-term sustainable solution is key and we are playing our part in achieving this and currently studying proposals for more cost-effective ways to de-silt the two waterways.”


Somerset levels

The Levels cover 68,000 ha (170,000 acres) of land, which is 15 per cent of the county of Somerset, and are managed by more than 1,000 farmers.


The Rivers Tone and Parrett flow through the Somerset Levels.


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