Somerset Levels Two Weeks after the Heavy Rain and Flooding

During the few days from the 20th of November, through to the 23rd of November, the UK and Southwest England in particular, where hit with a large amount of rain. On the 21st alone, up to 60mm fell in some areas. Exeter, in Devon, used to flood badly in the areas around the River Exe, until the building of a flood prevention scheme was built in the 1960’s; this only just held back the flood waters, resulting in a raging torrent in the flood prevention channels. Just outside of Exeter, upstream, the river burst its banks flooding the mainline railway into the Southwest. In Tiverton, to the northeast, the Grand Union Canal had a partial collapse. Cornwall and Dorset were also badly hit and two red alerts were issued in Cornwall, with a major threat to life. The flooding was exacerbated from the extremely wet spring summer, causing the ground to be saturated, therefore being less able to absorb the rainfall.

In Somerset, flooding is an annual event on the Levels and the whole landscape is built around flood defence. There are many spillways from the network of rivers that wind there way across the moors and marshes, not to mention hundreds of man-made Rhynes and even river systems to help drain the floodwater away. These spillways divert the water away from the rivers onto the low lying moors, deliberately flooding the farmland to protect the major towns of Taunton and Bridgwater, but also to help protect some of the small towns and villages directly on the Levels. This event was different however. The spillways worked as normal and the pumps were pumping water further downstream into the River Parrett, where it could pass out to the Bristol Channel. However, the whole system simply couldn’t cope with the rainfall and the water volumes involved. There are four main rivers, flowing down from the Quantock Hills, Brendon Hills and Blackdown Hills onto the Somerset Levels, converging on the Parrett before flowing out to the Bristol Channel. The Rivers Isle and Yeo meet the Parrett near the town of Langport and the Parrett burst its banks, flooding one of the trading estates. Further upstream, the Yeo also burst its banks, as did the Parrett, cutting off the village of Muchelney.

Further downstream, at the convergence of the Rivers Parrett and Tone, more chaos ensued, as the Athelney Spillway and the various pumping stations and other Spillways were overwhelmed. North Moor, Curry Moor, Salt Moor, Stan Moor and Southlake moor all flooded as normal, but the flood water kept rising, until it breached the raised A361 road in a number of places, resulting in closure of the road, as well as the nearby A372. The villages of East Lyng and Burrowbridge were also cut off for a time. The amount of rain was so great, that the water levels on the Levels and Moors were still rising a week later, thanks to the runoff from the surrounding hills. At one point, the water was rising at a rate of 3 centimetres each day, over a huge area. Extra mobile pumps were installed to try to pump out the flood water, but the rivers were so full, that pumping downstream became an issue, particuarly as the heaviest rain coincided with a high tide, putting the large town of Bridgwater at risk from sea encroachment.

Two weeks after the event, water levels are beginning to recede, but the village of Muchelney remains cut off and the A361 is still closed, although some drivers are attmepting to drive through. High sided vehicles seem to get through ok, albeit slowly, but it is still impassible for cars. After looking at maps, trying to determine exactly where the road was closed, I decided to drive to Burrow Mump, near the Tone and Parrett convergence, yesterday to view the extent of the floods. Even two weeks after the flooding and despite receding, the flooding is extensive, with water up to the base of the hill at a couple of points.

With winter only just arriving, the chances of more heavy rain, falling onto the flooded landscape makes it look pretty bleak for those living in the flooded areas. With the floods not expected to recede for a few months, any rain will just exacerbate the problem.


First Book Published on Blurb

I have just published my first book on Blurb. It’s been a project for a while now, but the past week or so, I finally put the finishing touches together. It’s basically an account of my experiences with nature, both at home in the UK and in Nepal back in 1994. As an added touch, I have also included a number of photographs.

Starling Roost 11/1/11

Last night, I decided to go and see the starling roost that occurs every evening during the winter months on the Somerset Levels. The roost in the Avalon Marshes area is one of the largest in the country, due to the large area of suitable natural habitat, with the extensive reed beds. Of course the downside is the number of people it attracts, which is the main reason I don’t watch the spectacle more often. Parking is at a premium in the area and some days there can be almost 200 vehicles parked in the small car park and along the verges.

Starling roost on the Somerset Levels, showing motion.

Some of the photographs are spectacular, but there is an element of luck involved (aside from patience and persistence), as no one evening is the same. In wet or windy conditions, the starlings don’t perform and dive straight into their chosen roosting sites. Also, conditions have to be just right to get the vivid colours as a backdrop. Even when conditions are seemingly perfect though, there are no guarantees of a good display and it is thought that the presence of raptors provokes a response; certainly a close examination of the best photos would seem to suggest this. Also, while some years they seem to have a preferred site, they are liable to move around and the past couple of years, they seem to have been much less decisive in where they will roost.

Black and white conversion and slow shutterspeed as roosting starlings fly south, showing a more abstract view.

Yesterday, despite the heavy cloud in the morning, things looked pretty good, the clouds thinned and the sun bathed both of the Shapwick Heath and Ham Wall reserves. However, as sunset appproached, more cloud started to roll in from the west, preventing the vivid colours that make the best photogaphs. It was also quite windy, which didn’t bode well for a good display. However, despite the conditions, it turned out not to be too bad a display, at least they didn’t dive straight into the reeds. In fact, they seemed to be quite indecisive and split into three large groups, coming in at different times. The first group seemed to fly over the reserve from the west to roost to the northeast of the first viewing platform. The second group however, flew more to the south, as did the third, which came in quite a bit later. Finally, the first group seemed to change their mind and flew back south, to roost directly east of the easterly facing screens, to the south of the main path.

The Fall and Rise of the Eurasian Otter

When I was growing up in the 1970’s and 80’s, the Eurasian otter was scarce. Decades of pollution in the rivers of the UK and much of Europe as a whole was having a serious detrimental effect on otter survival. Being an apex predator, any pollutants were concentrated, causing organ damage, ultimately leading to premature death. Even less severe cases of pollution were probably enough to reduce the fertility of otters, which for a species that perhaps lived 3-6 years in the wild and reproduced every 18 months or so, was a serious concern. In the early 1980’s, the situation had become so bad, that the otter had disappeared from many countries in central and southern Europe and much of England and Wales too. There was a real danger that the Eurasian otter would become extinct in most of Europe. Only in Scotland, where there were populations of coastal otters and Northern Europe, were they still widespread. The only other areas in the UK, where there were still healthy (albeit small) populations, were Southwest England (mainly Devon and Cornwall) and parts of Wales and inland Scotland, particularly higher ground, where the effects of pollution were lessened.

It was during this time, that I had an ambition, or perhaps given the situation, it was more like a dream. I wanted to see an otter in the wild. Of course, not only was the otter population plummeting, but they are also largely nocturnal in most habitats, which made the chances of seeing one, pretty remote.

Fast forward to 2008 and the otter population was much more healthy, at least in the UK. Many areas had been repopulated from the west and they were slowly spreading east. I visited Scotland and was finally able to fulfill my dream of 30 years earlier. I caught sight of my first wild otter, running along one of the supports of North Kessock bridge, near Inverness, before it dived into the surf. It was around 6.30 am and bitterly cold, with frequent snow flurries, but it was worth it. My ambition was achieved, but I wanted more. I then spent hundreds of hours in the summer, observing otters in the daylight, much closer to home at Shapwick Heath. Unlike most populations, the otters on the Somerset Levels show themselves at all times of the day. It is probably in part due to the local diet, where freshwater mussels make up a large part of what they eat. One of the reasons that otters are nocturnal, is because their favoured prey items are less active then, so they can expend less energy catching them.

Over the past ten years in particular, but really since the 1990’s, the otter population has become stable and even increased slowly. However, the past has shown how precarious that recovery may be. Pollution, while lessened, still occurs and a recent incident involving paint thinner almost certainly had some effect in parts of the Somerset Levels. There is also a new threat, this time from a fluke carried by oriental fish that have escaped into the Somerset river systems and have since spread further afield. This bile fluke (Pseudamphistomum truncatum) can contribute to death and certainly debilitates infected otters. Generally, parasites are adapted not to cause serious harm to their host, it’s in their interest for the host to survive. However, the otter isn’t the natural host and as is commonly the case with accidental hosts, it causes serious harm to the otter’s internal organs.

Human activity also remains a threat to the survival of the Eurasian otter as a species. While pollution is lessened, in the period when the otter all but disappeared, many fish farms have sprung up. This has now become a source of potential conflict, with calls from some quarters for an otter cull. This call, has largely come about due to ignorance. Many seem to think that otters have deliberately been reintroduced by scientists and conservationist on a large scale, which simply isn’t the case. Even some individual anglers have joined the call for a cull, with some heated debates on internet forums. The fact is, the greatest cause of depleted fish stocks in rivers is human activity. If a river is able to support otters, then it is a good sign that there is some sort of balance. Otters simply are not present in high enough densities to cause depletions in fish stocks and numbers would soon decrease, if there were insufficient prey items (i.e. fish and crustaceans) to support them. Only in fish farms, where they are allowed access, are they likely to cause a problem and that problem is one that is easily overcome. Fish farms are big business and many of the fish are prized oriental carp, worth thousands of pounds, so an otter let loose in a fish farm will cause alot of damage. However, it is the responsibility of any business to protect their assets. In the case of fish farming, it is very easy to keep otters out, by using fences. Otters won’t try to force their way through an electric fence, as it would cause them discomfort. Like many predators, they will go for the easiest prey, if the fish farm isn’t otter-proof, then it will be the fish farm, but if it has adequate protection, then the otter will go elsewhere, where they won’t get a jolt of electricity. Also, to put things in a bit more perspective, there are an estimated 3500-4000 otters in England and Wales, with a further 4000-4500 in Scotland (many of which are around the coasts). Their diet consists of around 90% fish and crustaceans. In comparison, the American mink has a diet of around 40% fish and crustaceans, with the rest being birds and small mammals. The mink is much smaller than the otter, so will eat less, but population estimates for the mink are around 35000 to 40000, perhaps five times as many as otters. It is therefore likely that mink account for more fish predation in total than otters, not to mention the other problems they cause to native breeding birds and small mammals, such as the water vole, which has seen an 80% drop in numbers in the period that the American mink has been at large in the British countryside.

Otter Swimming Through Reeds

Eurasian otter in lake

I now have several photographs of otters, but none that I am really happy with. Otters have provided me with hours of pleasure and I hope they will continue to do so for many years to come. While the otter is a protected species, it still faces numerous threats, mostly either directly (through pollution and altered habitat) or indirectly (through realease of non-native species, such as oriental fish) caused by human activity. If the otter and the whole of the habitat each one inhabits is to survive, we have a responsibility to protect our environment. We must preserve the otter for future generations to enjoy.