The story of the voles, the ditch and the prime minister

A little wild water vole eating some juicy blackberries looking at the cameraThis post is by conservationist and blogger Miles King. A version first appeared on his blog.

Those who believe that nature is important and that, for it to be better protected from the activities of people, the best approach is to gather evidence – scientific evidence – analyse it and present it to those in power, should heed this story.

On Tuesday the prime minister attended the Parliamentary Liaison Committee, where he was questioned on a wide range of issues (watch it from 17:22). The committee comprises all the chairs of the Parliamentary Select Committees. So Neil Parish, the new chair of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs committee, and a Devon farmer, was there, as was Labour’s Huw Irranca Davies, the new chair of the Environmental Audit Committee.

It was good to see Huw Irranca Davies give David Cameron a hard time over the cuts in subsidies for renewable energy, though Cameron is an accomplished PR man and had the figures to hand, which he deployed. It’s a pity in these sorts of situations that the chair isn’t able to intervene and ask an independent arbiter to look at the facts on both sides and determine who is right. In normal circumstances this would be someone like the National Audit Office (NAO); but I can see it would be difficult for the NAO to have all the necessary information to hand instantly.

Long term vision on flooding
Davies then congratulated the PM on reappointing Dieter Helm to chair the Natural Capital Committee, and quoted Helm’s recent paper (which I wrote about earlier this week) on flooding saying the “current approach to flooding is never going to be adequate”. Cameron agreed “we need to do more of everything – more defences, better at river management, whole drainage and area systems work”.

As an example of “more of everything” he explained how the “Military came in more quickly the money was disbursed more rapidly.” He also celebrated an “attitudinal change in the Environment Agency… [who] were trying to balance up the effect on nature and protection of property. The time for that is over. This is about protecting human life, about protecting our homes.  I want to see that continued shift.”

In Somerset, the PM said “this is a man made environment, it was ridiculous those rivers weren’t being dredged. I threatened to go and drive the dredger myself and now we have seen those rivers dredged.”

Neil Parish, who is close to the National Farmers Union, congratulated Cameron on dredging the Somerset Levels. He asked “what is your long term vision plan on flooding?”

David Cameron explained that there would be more spending on investment, building capital schemes, bringing in partnership money and looking again at agricultural policy, planning policy and pushing this attitudinal change he mentioned earlier. He rejected the idea that it was a bad idea to build on floodplains claiming that London was a floodplain. Only a tiny proportion of London sits in the floodplain of the Thames, perhaps he was confusing Westminster with London.

The PM’s epiphany
Parish pushed on, arguing for more dredging, but also suggested upstream management to slow the flow including planting trees and rewetting land, but he wanted farmers to be paid extra to do such things, “more of a carrot” as he put it. Cameron agreed that a catchment approach was needed, with dredging downstream, upstream attenuation ponds and changed farming practices.  So far, so vaguely promising.

But then Parish returned to the fold “are you convinced the attitude of the Environment Agency towards dredging has changed? Many places in Britain need dredging”.

At this point our PM recounted a story, “an epiphany” as he put it. (here’s the verbatim). It was probably a well versed one judging by the way he recounted it. At Kelmscott, in his constituency, the Environment Agency were threatening to take legal action against a landowner who had cleared out ditches with water voles present, without Environment Agency consent. The PM visited the site and, in front of all concerned, two water voles appeared on the bank. This, as he said, settled the matter. The moral of the story is that  Environment Agency red tape stopped sensible landowners doing what was needed, and the red tape wasn’t needed to protect nature, because the voles were still there.

Neil Parish leapt on the opportunity,  arguing that the agency needs to pass powers for dredging and maintenance down to local drainage boards (IDBs), Local Authorities and local landowners and farmers (as Liz Truss announced last week). As he said, “if there’s a tree in the river, let’s have someone local come out and do the work.” Leaving aside whether the tree is helping to slow the flow or not, Parish was pushing the argument that landowners should do this work and, presumably, be paid for it. Who would pay though?

Andrew Tyrie, the chair of the Parliamentary Liaison Committee, also leapt on the vole story, taking the opportunity for some more nature bashing.  “While looking at voles” he said sardonically, “perhaps the PM could look bats, aphids, newts and snails, all of which seem to have slowed up work at one time or another.”

Scientific evidence vs a good story
The scientific evidence that nature benefits people in a hundred different ways continues to build. The evidence that clearing out ditches insensitively, or at the wrong time of year, damages water vole populations is total and absolute. There is no ambiguity. While sensitive ditch management is good for water voles, insensitive or inappropriate ditch maintenance is one of the reasons why the water vole population in England has crashed.

But because the PM saw two voles (who may have been running around on the bank, starving, precisely because their habitat had been destroyed by the dredging) the case was dismissed.

And it’s easy to see how such an experience, and such a good story, could influence the PM’s views on nature more generally, as well as reinforce his prejudices against “ridiculous” regulation. Not only his, the same language was used in 2011 by the chancellor, when he said he was going to “make sure that gold plating of EU rules on things like habitats aren’t placing ridiculous costs on British businesses.”
While we may recoil at the abject naturephobia of our political leaders, we must also recognise that they understand that a good story (even if it’s wrong) will usually trump facts or statistics.

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