Environmentalist and journalist George Monbiot has once again sparked an angry response among farmers by blaming the Cumbian floods on over-grazing by hill farmers.
Many farmers in the county have been the victims of serious flooding over the weekend as Storm Desmond brought record levels of rainfall to the North of England and Scotland.
Defra minister Rory Stewart, MP for Penrith and the Border, said flooding in his constituency had been ’the worst that anybody’s experienced’, while Kendal dairy farmer James Robinson said his family had ‘never seen anything like it’ in 100 years after 100 mm of rain fell in 24 hours.
As farmers have been forced to evacuate livestock and search for winter grazing or somewhere to house them, pledges of forage and bedding have been coming in, while hundreds of thousands of pounds have already been donated to the Cumbria 2015 Flood Appeal.
But while all this has been going on a debate has been raging about the causes of flooding and the best way to prevent it in future, with one of farming’s most persistent and hard-hitting critics inevitably at the centre of it.
In a series of tweets, Mr Monbiot, a driving force behind the campaign to rewild parts of the UK’s uplands, returned to a familiar theme, what he has previously branded the ’sheep-wrecked’ or ’sheep-shagged’ uplands.
“Cumbria’s bare hills make #flooding inevitable after heavy rain. Bring back the tree cover to slow the flow,” he wrote as the story was unfolding on Saturday evening.
“When rain hits bare hills, it flashes off. When it hits tree-covered hills it is absorbed and released slowly. Reclaim the watersheds.”
He went on to accuse Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron of double standards after the Cumbrian MP criticised the Government over the failure of its flood policy to prevent flooding in the county.
Mr Monbiot responded: “You have been campaigning to keep the sheep on the hills. Now you lament the floods this policy has helped to cause.”
Farmers did not take his comments kindly, accusing him of gross insensitivity at a hugely trying time for farmers and many others in the county, and of being highly selective in his arguments.
First to respond was Brian Captsick, who accused Mr Monbiot of ‘attacking our way of life’ as hill farmers were ‘out getting stock safe & evacuating isolated families’, followed by the hashtag #noclass.
Referring to Mr Monbiot’s comments on climate change, he said Cumbria’s hills ‘sequester far more carbon than we produce’ and suggested Mr Monbiot looked ‘closer to his postcode’ to find the main source of carbon emissions.
Jim Savege branded Mr Monbiot’s comments as ‘shoddy’. He said: “Just not the time for this sort of point scoring. Have a bit of respect and compassion.”
David Jones described the Guardian columnist as a ’self-serving opportunist’. “Using misery of #Cumbriafloods to have a pop at sheep farming tonight takes the biscuit,” he said.
Will Wilson was succinct. “Classy,” he tweeted.
Others insisted he was mistaken if he believed planting trees could solve the problem, given the huge volume of rainfall in the county.
@Longwool said: “@GeorgeMonbiot you really are an insensitive chump revelling in your theories a few more trees and less sheep won’t solve rainfall like this.”
Laurie Brunskill said: “@GeorgeMonbiot wow! Would a months rainfall in 24hours still be stopped by trees? #moron.”
Rachel Marston said: “@GeorgeMonbiot with these gales would be no trees left on the fells you want to try living in rural England and make a living.”
But others backed Mr Monbiot for what they said was ’telling the truth’ and praised him for raising the link between farming in the uplands and flooding at a time when it would receive maximum attention.
Matthew Egan said: “He’s focusing on only part of the story but he’s basically right, bare hills worsen flooding."
Simon Brooke suggested ’coppice, biomass, woodlots must all be parts of the answer. And woodland crofts, certainly.’
Gordon Struth, who works in agriculture for the Scottish Government, added: “Catchment management about more than trees, also restored upland bog, contour ploughing, restoring meanders etc.”
As the debate continued along these lines through Sunday and Monday, Mr Monbiot warmed to the theme.
“There are two well-established means of reducing #flood peaks: reforest the hills and rewild the rivers. Until then, expect more disasters,” he warned on Sunday.
He added: "The storm of abuse I’m getting for pointing out that you can reduce
#flooding by reforesting the uplands almost matches Hurricane Desmond."
The debate continued on Radio 4's Today programme on Tuesday morning when Mr Monbiot went head to head with NFU president Meurig Raymond.
Mr Monbiot insisted he was not blaming farmers but was criticising the policy they followed and went on to repeat his argument about the need to remove livestock from the hills and plant more trees in the hills.
He also blamed the dredging of rivers turning them into 'straight drains' for allowing the water to 'rush' down the hill unchecked. Instead, rivers should be allowed to meander and form banks of gravel and shingle to stem the flow.
"The water has to go somewhere. If it is not on the farmland it will flow down to the towns," he said.
Mr Raymond blamed the 'unprecedented rainfall' seen over the past few days and called for better flood defences and more dredging of rivers.
He said livestock numbers had fallen and there was more vegetation in the uplands than there had been for a number of years.
Cumbrian farmer Alistair Mackintosh, the county’s delegate on the NFU council, has hit back at Mr Monbiot’s comments, accusing him overstating the importance of trees as a flood defence.
Mr Mackintosh, who farms at Ravenglass, on Cumbria’s west coast, said:
“The real challenge going forward is a lot of towns affected are built on flood plains. You build a wall around those towns and you try and keep the water out but you concentrate the water into a channel.
“It is always going to cause more problems further downstream.
“George Monbiot talks about allowing the rivers to meander (and the damage caused by dredging and straightening the rivers). But there has not been any dredging up here.
“The problems often arise when trees block rivers. He talks about planting trees up in the fells. Do we want to see the fells covered in fir trees? What environmental benefit do they bring?
“Deciduous trees have no leaves on them at this time anyway. They are not going to be transpiring and taking water up. The trees at this time of year are fairly dormant and would have limited effect.
“There aren’t many holdings in Cumbria that aren’t in an environment scheme, which has meant stock being taken off those hills to allow the vegetation to flourish.
“There is more vegetation in those hills now than there has been for the last 10 years. But when you get an unprecedented volume of water and the land is saturated it doesn’t matter what you do – it can’t take any more water.
“It has to go somewhere. It is always going to go downhill.”
Mr Mackintosh said his farm, located on a hill down to the sea, had ‘got away lightly’ but outlined the horror many farmers in the county had faced.
“I spent Saturday morning sheep out of the low lying fields putting them up onto higher ground.
“I was very lucky. We escaped the worse when I see what others have had to endure and the floods that I had to drive through on Sunday.
“It was just a mass of water around the whole of Cockermouth. It was horrendous. It looked like the sea – there were waves three or four feet high coming across the land.
“There was debris lying on the road. It was almost like the third world.
“There seems to be quite a few hundred sheep not accounted for. We have heard some horrendous stories of people rescuing stock form flooded areas and flooded sheds.
“We need a few days just to reflect and get a clear understanding of how much stock has been swept away and what the damage has been.
“Until we correlate it, it will be difficult to assess how the insurance companies and the Government are going to help.
“But we will need to look at regulation surrounding the water to the make sure it is not treated as hazardous, which would add to the cost of the clean-up.
“Also when it comes to sheep and cattle that go missing you can’t have those guys getting inspected and falling foul of the inspection regime.
“And if there is a case to be made for the disposal of livestock we need to be on to that.”
A Defra spokesperson said:
“Trees and vegetation can have an impact in slowing the flow of flood water and we are exploring the role this can play in flood risk management through schemes such as at Pickering in Yorkshire.
“The levels of rainfall in the north west on already saturated ground were unprecedented and therefore this sort of approach would not have made any material difference to this kind of exceptional flood event.”