Trialling a better future for our rivers

16th March 2023

We visit one of the sites testing the Land Use Framework to understand the benefits it could bring for the communities and nature that rely on river catchments across the country.

The River Culm runs from its source in the Blackdown Hills through breath-taking Devon countryside before joining the River Exe just north of Exeter.

It’s a river that meets many different needs in the local community and environment, providing an important habitat for local wildlife, connecting people to nature and the outdoors, and supporting the livelihoods of farmers.

“Extreme flooding and drought events on the Culm have become more frequent."

It’s clearly an integral part of the landscape. But in recent years, the effects of climate change and other environmental changes have seen extreme flooding and drought events on the Culm become more frequent, as well as worsening water quality – causing risks to life, livelihoods and local infrastructure, and creating inhospitable habitats for native and beneficial wildlife.

The Connecting the Culm project was set up in 2018 to help make the River Culm and its catchment more resilient to flood and drought, and better for nature and people. They’re also one of our Land Use Framework pilot sites in Devon, helping FFCC to test how a Land Use Framework would work on the ground.

Dominic Acland is a longstanding consultant to the project and has particular experience in nature conservation, countryside management and river catchment management. He points out that rivers have always flooded – but it’s the frequency of extreme events that is a major cause for concern.

“We’ve seen photographs from the 60s showing severe flooding in the catchment. So, it’s not a new problem. But it’s happening too often and the existing infrastructure in the area is particularly vulnerable to it.”

Both the main railway line to the southwest and the M5 motorway run alongside the river and through the Culm’s floodplain for many miles, which means that a severe flood can sever two of the peninsula’s key transport arteries. “Floods cut off the trainline, on average, once a year. And that average is just going to increase.”

“We build homes on floodplains … then we wonder why things go wrong”

People’s homes are also at risk. “We build homes on floodplains even though we know we shouldn’t because of housing pressures. And then we wonder why things go wrong. 200 properties are currently at risk of by flooding – it’s not a massive figure compared to other flood zones, but it’s still a constant worry for the people who live in those homes.”

Dominic points out that these numbers – while worrying in themselves – could reach much greater levels. “The Culm joins the River Exe just north of Exeter – which has a community of over 130,000 people and includes a significant flood zone. The Environment Agency and City Council recently spent 32 million pounds building hard flood defences in Exeter because of the risk – but those defences are likely to be inadequate in the next twenty years because of climate change. So we can keep on fighting this thing with concrete – or we can use nature-based solutions. That’s what our project is all about.”

The nature-based solutions identified by Connecting to Culm are three-fold – but critically, all encompass a better way of managing our land.

Firstly, soils in the area need to be improved and made more porous, so than rainwater soaks into the ground rather than running off into the river (usually taking a farmers’ topsoil with it). The second is floodplain reconnection, which involves refiguring the landscape to help water reach designated floodplains and stay there. And the third is tree-planting. By planting trees alongside the river, water can soak into the ground around the roots. Trees also help filter the runoff from farmland, improving water quality, as well as providing extra habitat for wildlife.

As most of the land surrounding the Culm is farmland, many of these nature-based solutions will involve the cooperation of local farmers. Have they been receptive to the project?

“Many farmers want to take action. But there’s still a lot of uncertainty about post-Brexit farming payments and some don’t want to commit to widescale land use change – they need to know how their business will be affected.”

“Good soil management benefits the farmer and river – they want to improve the catchment’s resilience to flood and drought.”

Lucy Jefferson is the Culm Catchment Officer for the project and works closely with farmers in the area. “The response has been incredibly positive. The work that Connecting the Culm has been doing since 2018 means there’s a really good awareness of how the catchment is functioning and what landowners can do to improve its’ resilience to flood and drought. And they understand that the principles of good soil management benefit the farmer as well as river.”

Farmers are also embedded members of the local community. Richard Chave, the farmer featured in the film, owns land upstream to the village Kentisbeare and a section of the river which floods. “Richard is very community-minded," says Lucy, “he’s lived next to the village all his life, and when parts of the river he owns floods, it’s his neighbours who are affected. So, of course, he’s very keen to do what he can.”

His knowledge of the river and land is also unparalleled. “He’s completely in tune with the river. He knows exactly what the river does, and where it floods and how it works.”

For Lucy, this is why local knowledge is so crucial to managing our land more effectively. “Landowners and managers can tell you exactly how a river functions over time. And if we’re talking about rivers going back to a more natural state, many of the longstanding landowners know what that looks like. They know where the orchards and hedges used to be, and when they were taken out. They know things you can’t get from a historical map or data set. It’s generational knowledge.”

There’s a real desire to see change … but it can be hard to get people round the table”

Buy-in from local residents has also been encouraging and has shown that Connecting the Culm is about more than climate adaption – it’s about place and community. “There’s a real desire to see change,” says Dominic, “And not just from those directly affected by flooding. Over the past three years, we’ve heard from voices across the community. And water quality, heritage, biodiversity and wildlife all came out as things which were important to people.”

For infrastructure and land sector organisations in the area, it’s a mixed bag. “We’ve had a great response from Network Rail, National Highways and the Environment Agency. But it can be hard to get water companies to the table. They’re, rightly, under huge pressure to improve water quality across the whole region. But it’s crucial to have them in the room.”

Good data has been crucial when making a case, both to larger organisational stakeholders and locals. “We’ve collected a lot of data in the last three years. And what we’ve found is that when you sit down with a landowner and you show them the data, you can say with some authority that this is what’s possible with your land – this is how it could be managed for nature, for flood prevention, for food production.”

A Land Use Framework could help maximise benefits on land"

It's also key to better decision-making, “A Land Use Framework would make regional data accessible to landowners and land managers and help them make the better decisions. If a farmer has grade one agricultural land, that should of course be prioritised for food growing. But a Land Use Framework would help them maximise other benefits on the rest of their land.”

Tim Youngs, Project Director of the Connecting the Culm, emphasises the importance of testing the Land Use Framework as government considers the final form it will take – and the potential it has to ensure that the final tool can reconcile the needs and wants of local communities with government targets: “A Land Use Framework Devon could help us better plan for and prioritise actions, collaboratively resolving any conflicts between objectives. Such actions include nature-based solution interventions co-designed with land managers, in order to restore our landscapes and waterways in a way which meets the needs of local communities and helps deliver government ambition."

Find out more about how we’re testing a Land Use Framework for England