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Do we have to wave goodbye to our precious farmland?

PUBLISHED: 12:04 08 May 2017 | UPDATED: 12:04 08 May 2017

Little Terns are one of the coast's most threatened species.
There is a major conservation effort going on to save them, involving, among others, the RSPB and Touching the Tide project.
Benacre Broad is a protected nesting area for the Little Terns.

Little Terns are one of the coast's most threatened species. There is a major conservation effort going on to save them, involving, among others, the RSPB and Touching the Tide project. Benacre Broad is a protected nesting area for the Little Terns.

Archant

East Anglia’s coastline has been eroding for centuries. Sarah Chambers spoke to a farmer whose land is falling into the 
sea to get his perspective on an age-old problem.

Benacre Broad in 2015 Mike Page Benacre Broad in 2015 Mike Page

Benacre Farms manager Jonathan Mitchell estimates the estate he works for is losing anything up to about 10 acres of land a year.

It’s a heavy toll, and there is no compensation for landowners, many of whom find themselves fighting a losing battle against the sea along East Anglia’s fragile and eroding coastline.

Theirs is a lonely struggle, as protecting land from flooding, as opposed to ‘property’, is not a government priority.

But what it means is that every year, farmers like Jonathan have less and less land on which to grow crops, rear livestock, or manage environmental schemes, and their fields live under threat of flood damage.

Benacre Farms manager Jonathan Mitchell checking the coastal errosion on the farm.

PHOTO: Nick Butcher Benacre Farms manager Jonathan Mitchell checking the coastal errosion on the farm. PHOTO: Nick Butcher

Earlier this year, the 
National Farmers’ Union (NFU) attempted to highlight some 
of the issues this approach raises when it launched its Flood Manifesto.

It urged the government to adopt a ‘plan, protect and pay’ approach as part of a long-term strategic blueprint for flood and coastal risk management.

The manifesto listed recent flooding events which have affected agriculture, including the winter of 2013 and 2014 when about 45,000 hectares of agricultural land was flooded, at a cost to the sector of £19m. This included more than 2,000 hectares in coastal areas.

NFU East Anglia environment adviser Rob Wise said there needed to be a “proper assessment” of the value of agriculture when looking at flood management.

Benacre Farms manager Jonathan Mitchell checking the coastal errosion on the farm.

PHOTO: Nick Butcher Benacre Farms manager Jonathan Mitchell checking the coastal errosion on the farm. PHOTO: Nick Butcher

“This is crucially important in East Anglia, where so much highly productive farmland is at risk of flooding,” he said.

“And where agricultural land is part of the solution to flooding, such as providing flood water storage, this must be planned, agreed and paid for.”

Jonathan was brought up on the 7,000 acre Benacre Estate in north Suffolk, where his father was resident agent. For the last 36 years he has been its farms manager and has witnessed the ongoing loss of land to the sea over that period.

Every year, about 3m of land along a 3.5km strip of estate land abutting the sea south of Kessingland is swept away.

Benacre Farms manager Jonathan Mitchell.

PHOTO: Nick Butcher Benacre Farms manager Jonathan Mitchell. PHOTO: Nick Butcher

“That’s only one aspect of it. We are in the Lothingland Valley, and that could flood at any moment from the sea,” he says. A pumping house on the river is the last defence against this, but now the infrastructure itself is threatened.

“The trouble is the sea is now very close to the pumping house and it’s only a matter of time before its all swept out to sea,” he says.

“There are a number of issues really - we are obviously losing land which is being swept out to sea and I guess down the coast. It all ends up somewhere else. We have no redress as far as compensation is concerned and there are no sea defences at all between Kessingland and Southwold. It would be nice if something could be done.”

Not that he holds high hopes, although, as he argues, farmland is a national resource, and its economic importance is as relevant as man-made ‘property’ which often is defended.

“We also have the prospect of losing or having a considerable area of marsh lost to the sea as well. I can’t see the government putting its hand in its pocket and defending the valley. How is it going to be defended and at what cost?”

The estate grows potatoes, sugar beet and cereal crops and reliance on homegrown food is going to become increasingly important as the UK leaves the European Union.

“The strategy at the moment is hold the line where the pumping station is but the sea is coming in around it. With a really good high tide with the wind around it we could lose the whole of the Lothingland valley,” he says.

He recognises that the sea can’t be stopped, and “some marshes in Suffolk” are not considered a high priority against areas of dense population, but he feels more could be done to defend productive or useful plots of land.

“They are somebody’s property,” he says.

He adds: “One’s a realist. You can’t defend absolutely everything, but there comes a point where you think; ‘My God, you have got to do something.’”

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