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  • Writer's pictureAlistair

Where did all the water go?

After a long dry patch, as Wimbledon arrived, normal weather service resumed. It’s raining. Wales is famously wet. West Wales doubly so. The official figures from the Met show that my part of Wales got an average 1241.65mm of rain (over the 173.89 rainy days) per annum between 1991 and 2020, whereas West London got just 627.47mm (over 113.79 days). And while winter saw more rain than the summer, Wales has historically not done "dry" for more than a few weeks. The figures are from the weather stations in Trawsgoed (around 15 miles from Cefn Garthenor) and Kew Gardens (source: The Met)

This year has been different. Until the last week we have not seen significant rain at Cefn Garthenor for a couple of months, with well publicised record temperatures in June across the UK. And with that, the water disappeared at an alarming rate from the farmland around me. In fact, over the centuries we have made massive efforts to drain the land. Most of my fields have drainage ditches on at least one side, creating a network to carry water down and off the land. Many of the fields have drains within them, taking water to those ditches. These are either clay pipes or simply channels which were dug out and then loosely refilled to direct the water as required. This Herculean task (much would have been dug by hand) made fields farmable, allowing boggy ground to be made into grassy fields.

This drain under the bridleway flows fast into the ditch most of the time (January on the left, April in the middle), but not for the last month (June on the right)

The problem of late, as the climate changes, is that it seems to rain torrentially or not at all. So, either more flooding in the valley or more desert conditions on the land. At the moment, all the ditches that normally run like streams are dry. The marshy areas remain damp to kneel on, but the “improved” rye grass fields are bone dry. The ability of the land to store water and gradually release it has been significantly diminished by our activities. This is absolutely not all about ditches … the ditches have allowed for a monoculture of grass which has had a huge effect on soil structure and the ability of the land to soak up water. Ultimately, particularly with changing weather, the end result is bad for farmers and for nature.

The Teifi valley just below Cefn Garthenor, the fields flooded after rain runs off the local farm land

At Cefn Garthenor we have done a few things to mitigate the problem. We have dug nine ponds / scrapes which have done a fantastic job. They hold water to varying extents … at the end of the latest dry spell two had totally dried, a couple significantly lowered but four were pretty much full. And the explosion in insects and amphibians has been huge. They also provide a useful watering hole for larger animals, the Galloway cattle included.

Galloways enjoy the ponds that now hold water through dry periods
Not every scrape holds water ... this shows one that fills quickly but then releases water over dry periods ... and yes, it is the same view! You will see the same tuft of soft rush, first in the water then out

We have also stopped clearing ditches on the land. We probably need to be more proactive and physically block some to speed the process. The odd bale of hay dropped into the ditch network. But you’d have thought there would be a nature-based solution. A native species that would beaver away, perhaps chop a few trees down, block a few waterways to create dams. I wonder what such a creature would look like?

The subject has been in the media again over the last week. The narrative around re-introducing beavers seems to be entirely around the (limited) damage they may do to farmers rather than around the (massive) benefits they would bring to farmers, the general population and nature itself.


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