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Tuesday, 31 July, 2001, 15:24 GMT 16:24 UK
Wetlands 'can lessen flood threat'
York floods PA
Towns could gain if countryside was used to cope with floods
By BBC News Online's environment correspondent Alex Kirby

A leading UK conservation group says wetlands should be used to provide protection against flooding.

It says they could not only absorb excess water, but also serve as reservoirs during droughts. There could also be big gains for wildlife and a new source of income for farmers.

The idea is part of a plan urging the government to be far more ambitious about restoring wildlife to the British countryside.

It comes from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), in a report entitled Futurescapes.

Timely report

The report says an area larger than greater London could be returned to people and wildlife by 2020, provided government targets for habitat restoration are "dramatically revised".

Species that would benefit include the black grouse, pine marten, avocet, sand lizard and bittern.

The RSPB wants to see 10 times more open downland, a fivefold increase in the planned restoration of lowland woodlands and heathlands, and twice as many reedbeds, wet meadows and upland heaths.

Grahame Madge of the RSPB told BBC News Online: "We'd begun work on Futurescapes before the foot-and-mouth outbreak, but it is timely.

Too many sheep

"The disease provides an ideal opportunity to pick up the pieces and have a new look at how we manage the countryside.

Dorset coast from air BBC
Dorset has lost huge wildlife areas
"It's a chance to see how we can manage the uplands more viably for all users. There've been too many sheep on them, and overstocking is one of the main reasons for the loss of heather.

"With wetlands, we believe they can provide much greater community benefits than simply as a wildlife habitat.

"We've reached a fairly broad consensus with the National Farmers' Union on how you could use them as buffers to protect towns against flooding.

"They'd become washlands, areas in a floodplain that can absorb extra water. And in times of water stress they'd be an extra supply.

"They would improve the landscape, and often leisure as well."

Flood payments

The wetlands would be surrounded by a low earth wall, or bund, and floodwater could be pumped in and retained there.

Farmers would receive regular payments if they agreed to use the land less intensively. It would normally be grazed, and if a flood happened the farmers would be paid extra.

Futurescapes details some of the habitats lost in the UK:

  • about 75% of England's lowland heathland since 1800
  • an estimated 40% of reedbeds since 1945
  • about 99% of Caledonian pine - only 16,000 hectares remain from 1.5 million ha
  • roughly 46% of ancient woodland in England and Wales converted to plantation or farming since 1946.
The RSPB says 162,000 ha (400,000 acres) of the UK's most important habitats should be on the way towards restoration by 2020.

It says the cost would be about 20m ($30m) a year, on top of current nature conservation expenditure. But it believes much of this could come from better allocation of existing funds.

Cheap option

The report says there would be many benefits, including more and more abundant species, more opportunities for leisure, and support for local economies.

Bittern BBC
Bitterns would gain from restoration
The author of the report, Gwyn Williams of the RSPB, said: "We are challenging government, local authorities, voluntary organisations and the private sector to forge new partnerships.

"These can enhance the quality of the countryside by breaking conservation targets rather than merely meeting them.

"Our figures show that for less than 50 pence a year for every adult in Britain, we can once more enjoy the rich landscapes familiar to our forefathers."

See also:

15 Mar 01 | UK Politics
Flood defences need 'urgent repairs'
21 Jun 01 | Sci/Tech
'Use outbreak to cut sheep numbers'
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