Last year, while in England, I read a book that had been a surprise bestseller in that verdant land. The Shepherd’s Life, by Lake District Herdwick sheep farmer James Redbank, was more manifesto than autobiography. It was prickly and cranky, with Redbank snarling equally at Westminster bureaucrats and non-farming Lakes residents who just didn’t get it, the “it” being the place-specific connection of the Cumbrian sheep farmer. In sheep-farming terms, the word that describes this connection is “heft”:
Part of Redbank’s manifesto (and I use the word a second time, deliberately) is that England’s uplands need the stewardship of sheep farmers; not only are they the people who have created the landscape, they are the ones best adapted to manage it. Having been in the Lake District during a period of relentless flooding I was interested to see how the debate on floods, flooding and flood defences evolved. There were the usual calls for more and higher concrete walls, but there were other voices too.
Consider George Monbiot’s Guardian article “Drowning in money: the untold story of the crazy public spending that makes flooding inevitable”. When Redbank writes, it’s effete non-farming Southern jessies like Monbiot that he has in his sights. But, as strapping Northerner myself, I have to say that Monbiot has it dead right: we strip our uplands of vegetation, we farm intensively and to the point of ecological exhaustion, and then when the rain comes down and sheets off the fields and into our poorly planned towns we throw millions of pounds of engineering solutions to “solve” the “problem”. Couldn’t happen in Australia, could it?
Many European rivers are now being “rewilded”, the straight concrete channels being dug up, meanders reintroduced and snags encouraged rather than ripped out:
In many countries, chastened engineers are now putting snags back into the rivers, reconnecting them to uninhabited land that they can safely flood [read “former gasworks”] and allowing them to braid and twist and form oxbow lakes. These features catch the sediment and the tree trunks and rocks which otherwise pile up on urban bridges, and take much of the energy and speed out of the river. Rivers, as I was told by the people who had just rewilded one in the Lake District – greatly reducing the likelihood that it would cause floods downstream – “need something to chew on”.
The Styx is ravenous, desperate for something to sink its teeth into. Every time there’s a freshwater flow I see the results of its poor, starved attempts at feeding, though often all it has to eat is itself.
It’s time for Hunter Water to do the right thing, ecologically speaking. A hungry Styx is nobody’s friend.