Finding common ground with farmers

27 August 2020 - Published by Eric Boessenkool
It’s one thing to design a Nature Based Solution (NBS), but actually implementing the solution usually calls for an exceptional level of cooperation and understanding across a range of stakeholders – often parties with totally different interests at stake. In the Eddleston Water catchment of the Scottish river Tweed, Natural Flood Management (NFM) solutions were proposed to mitigate the risk and severity of flood damage to riverside communities lying between the Eddleston headwaters and the Tweed. But to achieve this benefit downstream, these NFM solutions needed to be implemented up to 20 km upstream – on farmland with dozens of different owners, from owner-occupiers to absentee landlords. Thanks largely to the efforts of environmental trust Tweed Forum, sufficient landowners and farmers were convinced of the value to the community and to their businesses of cooperating in the Eddleston Water flood mitigation project, for the project to become a reality. Scotland’s first major NFM project is now in place. The benefits for nature, the farmers and the local communities, are starting to become tangible.

Natural Flood Management
Since its inception in 1991, the non-profit Tweed Forum has come to be recognised as an independent and trusted advocate for the splendid Scottish river Tweed, and the landscape, people and plants that exist within the entire catchment. So, when it comes to flood control in the Tweed catchment, the Tweed Forum plays a leading role in the assessment and implementation of strategies for flood management.

In the lightly populated but flood-prone catchment of the Eddleston Water, a northern tributary of the river Tweed, heavy or prolonged rainfall can cause a sudden and unexpected flood surge to race down the valley and cause havoc in the communities downstream. To prevent or reduce the impact of these events, the Tweed Forum recommended the implementation of specific Nature Based Solutions. Based on working with rather than against nature, these solutions together form a toolbox for Natural Flood Management, or NFM. What they have in common, is that they entail restoration or enhancement of the natural landscape in the headwaters and flood plains of rivers, to stimulate and support natural processes that are beneficial to flood mitigation, and sustainable with minimum effort in the longer term. With climate change expected to increase the frequency and intensity of heavy precipitation, long-term sustainable protection is the holy grail.

But there was a catch: these NFM measures needed to be carried out on farmland bordering, or near to the Eddleston Water. The owners and managers of these farms see little reason to cooperate with projects like these. After all, with a farm to run, a mortgage to pay, and countless regulations to comply with, they already have enough on their plates. What’s in it for them?

We put this question to Hugh Chalmers, Collaborative Action Coordinator at the Tweed Forum.

A tough sell
“The flooding problems are mainly experienced downstream, but the mitigation measures need to be taken up the valley,” explains Hugh, who has worked in the natural and agricultural landscape of Scotland for four decades. “The NFM mitigation measures we envisaged included capturing and holding runoff before it reaches the river, detaining flood surges in the tributaries before they reach the main channel, and slowing the flow where possible by restoring the natural meander of the watercourse before it was channelled between straight walls. These all involve some degree of disruption to the landscape of the farm, such as earthworks for re-meandering of a stream bed, removal of flood embankments, tree-planting to improve rainwater retention on upland slopes or in the flood plain, placement of ‘natural flow restrictions’ in the river channel, and reservation of land for temporary overflow basins. You can imagine their initial reaction to any such suggestion!”

Moreover, farmers are sometimes sceptical of new, unproven ideas. “Our evidence base for these measures was rather flimsy, and mainly anecdotal,” Hugh continues. “One of our aims with the Eddleston Water Project was to gather hard result data, scientifically measured and analysed, that will enable us to better predict the effect of these measures in future flood management projects here and elsewhere.”

The Tweed Forum recognised that the project could only be achieved with the agreement of all stakeholders in the river Tweed and especially Eddleston Water. With the farmers, it was going to be a tough sell.

Future vision
The flood control and environmental benefits of Natural Flood Management measures have a strong appeal to most stakeholders. But the landowners need to see good reasons to accept the disruption to their land and farming activity.

The Tweed Forum initiated local stakeholder engagement campaign to generate interest and knowledge of the planned measures, both at a collective level to community, educational and business groups, and through interactive and printed media. But reaching the stakeholders with the greatest concerns and influence – landowners and farmers – called for a face-to-face approach, and considerable patience, empathy and power to convince. Hugh Chalmers explains: “Winning the farmer or landowner’s agreement is a slow, one-by-one process. Chris Spray of the University of Dundee and I regularly visited farmers at their work. We speak their language and understand what it takes to run a farm successfully. What one farmer seemed to appreciate was a ‘future vision’ of the river meandering through a forest on the edge of the farm, giving summer shade to livestock, and providing a cash crop from commercial logging when the trees mature – and all this costs you nothing!”

Most farmers seemed receptive to the considerable benefits their collaboration can bring to their communities and society at large, thanks to improved aquatic, river bank and land habitats (greater biodiversity), a more varied and natural landscape (tourism), new woodlands (carbon sequestration), and of course, reduced risk and impact of flooding (safety of downstream communities).

Once a landowner agrees, the Tweed Forum arranges all details for building the NFM measure, such as agreements, permits, funding and subsidies, and the required works (earthmoving, construction, planting, and so on). According to Hugh, this is a significant added value for landowners and farmers. “At Tweed Forum we have excellent contact with all kinds of government, NGOs, research institutes and voluntary parties, so we can move quickly. We also coordinate the monitoring plan, which can entail biodiversity field studies, placing rain and river level gauges, or installing atmospheric pressure gauges and weather recorders. This all feeds into the evidence base that we expect will help us to substantiate the benefits we envisage for future projects.”

European collaboration
Eddleston Water is the Scottish case study of the Interreg North Sea Region (NSR) Building with Nature project. Hugh Chalmers. “This project opened my eyes to the value of European collaboration. European funding via Interreg NSR BWN made our monitoring plan possible. The results and lessons we have learned are published on the Tweed Forum and Interreg NSR websites.”

 

Hugh Chalmers and Chris Spray were to present their experiences and lessons on Stakeholder Engagement at the concluding meeting of the Interreg NSR Building with Nature project in June 2020. Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, this meeting had to take place online. For a copy of the presentation, please send a request to: hugh.chalmers@tweedforum.org. 

 

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Main organisations participating in the Eddleston Water Project:

  •         Scottish Government
  •         Scottish Environment Protection Agency
  •         University of Dundee
  •         University of Edinburgh
  •         British Geological Services
  •         EU Interreg North Sea Region Building with Nature project
  •         Tweed Forum

Eddleston Water Project home page