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Byline: ANDREW FORGRAVE Rural Affairs Editor

DESPERATE farmers are facing a bleak winter after enduring summer-long flooding which has wrecked silage and hay harvesting plans.

Around 250 acres has been permanently submerged to a depth of 3ft in a crisis which landowners blame on a lack of ditch dredging by the Environment Agency (EA).

One farmer has not seen 28 dairy cattle for the past three weeks as they have been marooned in a watery wilderness accessible only by boat.

"We're still waiting to take our first-cut silage," sighed Peter Arden, of Green Lane Farm, Broughton.

"But by now the water has probably killed many of the grass roots."

Now landowners and tenants on Saltney Meadows, near Chester, are demanding urgent action from the EA.

Their case is supported by Saltney Town Council, which fears the vast deluge may eventually affect the homes of its 5,000 inhabitants.

At the centre of the dispute is a waterway called Balderton Brook which drains water from farmland to the River Dee through the town of Saltney itself.

It has "Red River" status which means the Environment Agency has listed it as a high priority watercourse for management.

But it hasn't been dredged for years and, by this summer, much of its length had been choked by vegetation. As a result, more than 1,000 acres of farmland is at risk of flooding.

Cllr Derrick Beddow, a member of Saltney Council's environment and regeneration committee, said it was a disaster waiting to happen.

Prior to 1996, the brook was dredged every five years by the old National Rivers Authority, and weeds removed annually.

"When the EA took control of rivers in 1996, they stopped dredging it," said Cllr Beddow.

"Now they have also ceased weed cutting. The silt level in the brook is above all the land drain outsets.

"Subsequently thousands of acres of good agricultural land are permanently water-logged.

"The result is that the area can now flood over a 24-hour period of rain - the flood water reaching the house steps in our township.

"As a result of EA neglect we could have a flood disaster in homes at any time."

As much of Saltney Meadows is on reclaimed land, and lies below high tide levels on the River Dee, the area has been extensively canalised to prevent waterlogging. In the 1990s Balderton Brook - then a small stream - was widened significantly to cope with extra rainfall coming off the new Chester Business Park and adjacent park-and-ride scheme.

The meadows are also bounded on one side by the A55 dual carriageway, which has also added warer run-off on to fields.

In recent years the situation has deteriorated, with more farmland flooding, said Mr Arden, who runs the 170-head Green Lane Ayrshire herd at Broughton.

He rents 66 acres on the Meadows from Eric Cadwaladr. "This year I put half the usual number of cattle on the land because of the flooding and for the past three weeks, since the big storm, they've been marooned.

"I've not taken any silage off the land this summer and, being an organic operation, it's going to be a problem buying in adequate feed this winter.

"The impression I get is that the Agency will only act if the water threatens to flood homes, not farmland. It's as if our livelihoods do not count for anything."

Because of the flooding, horse owner John Wild has only managed a fifth of his usual annual hay harvest this year, and has struggled to find enough grazing.

He said: "When floods are sent by the Big Fella you have to take it on the chin, but in our case the EA is not doing enough to help.

"When I was a lad, you could jump across Balderton Brook. In widening it to take more water, the authorities have created a monster - yet they have now walked away from it."

Another disgruntled landowner is Peter Chadwick, of Bretton Hall Farm.

In a letter to Saltney Town Council, he said: "There are also public health issues - there are strong smells and plaques of mosquitos, all due to stagnant water." After lengthy talks, farmers in the area finally secured EA consent to carry out some brook management work themselves - provided they pay for consents.

Mr Wild, Jim Williams, Eric Cadwaladr, and Bill and John Nield chipped in to hire a digger to remove weeds along a threequarter mile stretch of the brook. The work was completed four weeks ago - and the floodwater began draining away.

A week later the EA partially dammed up the brook and the flooding returned.

The work was part of a PS500,000 to replace two "trash screens" at the River Lane pumping station, Saltney.

The facility is next to two sluice gates designed to prevent River Dee water backing up along Balderton Brook at high tide.

"I begged them to show some common sense," said Mr Wild.

"I was almost on my knees pleading with them not to block up the brook."

As the England-Wales border bisects the affected area, landowners say it has been difficult to reach agreement with the different national offices of the Environment Agency.

Last week, after a fortnight of complaints, operators were brought in to work the pumping station and remove surplus water.

Within a day, water levels on the meadows had fallen to 18 inches.

According to retired Dodleston farmer John Lloyd, chairman of the UK Flood Prevention Society, even this will not be a long-term solution.

He said the EA was showing no inclination to dredge the stretch of Balderton Brook which runs through Saltney's built-up areas.

One problem has been the encroachment of extended gardens adjacent to the brook, blocking the EA's heavy weed-clearing machinery.

But Mr Lloyd claimed it was part of a wider malaise in which river dredging had been given a low priority by the EA.

"There are 179 watercourses in Wrexham, Flintshire, Denbighshire and Cheshire and in 2010-2011 not one was listed for dredging," said Mr Lloyd.

"Many were marked down for weed cutting but it's apparent this is not being done either.

"The EA often blames the problem on habitat directives from the EU, which makes dredging more difficult. But Balderton Brook has not been managed and it's devoid of wildlife."

Last week farmers along the River Severn and in the Dyfi estuary raised a similar complaint with NFU Montgomeryshire.

County chairman Edward Chapman, a regular victim of River Severn flooding, accused the EA of cost-cutting.

But he added: "I believe not dredging actually costs them much more in the long run.

"Excessive rainfall could be much better absorbed naturally by our rivers and estuaries if they were regularly maintained.

"Farmers regularly clean out their own field drainage ditches as part of good management and practice to aid water flow and avoid water logging - the same principle should apply to our major water ways."

Last night affected farmers on Saltney Meadows were invited to voice their concerns to a full meeting of Saltney Town Council.

Cllr Beddows said it was time the EA acted. "They cannot blame it on global warming all the time," he said.

"We have made repeated and numerous requests for action over several years, and their intransigence smacks of wilful neglect." Area is a 'natur rral flood plain' ENVIRONMENT Agency Wales maintains almost 2,000 miles of flood defences and more than 5,000 sluices, outfalls and floodgates in Wales.

The agency spends more than PS20m each year in Wales and England on dredging to remove silt, as well as removing weeds and obstructions from rivers and ditches.

It acknowledged that flooding of farmland on Saltney Meadows has been a serious problem for farmers in recent years.

It said it was sympathetic to the plight of farmers. affected f dt An EAW spo said: "The land keswoman d in question is part of a nat plain which wi flood during pe heavy rainfall, tural flood ill inevitably eriods of and this ie plays an essential role in reducing the risk of flooding to people's homes in the area.

"Due to the area's unique landscape and its purpose as a flood plain, dredging would not be an effective method of reducing flood risk.

"We do however, check the brook regularly to make sure it is clear of obstructions, and we are currently working on a new PS500,000 project to replace two trashscreens which will help to reduce flood risk in the area."


Weed-choked Balderton Brook, left, and as it should be, right

Peter Arden gazes out over his flooded fields. Inset, disgruntled farmers Jim Williams, Dave Williams, Peter Arden, John Wild and Robert Williams Pictures: STACEY OLIVER
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:Daily Post (Conwy, Wales)
Date:Oct 11, 2012
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