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Flood risks reduced as online auction proves ‘win-win’ for Somerset farmers

Somerset farmers have successfully bid for £30,000 in the UK’s first online auction for natural flood management works.

Farmers in the River Tone and River Parrett catchments were urged to make bids for funding from Somerset Rivers Authority for flood risk reduction measures such as better maize management and hedge-planting.

The online auction tool that was used is called NaturEtrade NFM. It’s being developed by the Environment Agency in partnership with the Farming & Wildlife Advisory Group SouthWest (FWAGSW), and Natural England’s Catchment Sensitive Farming initiative.

Unlike a conventional auction, where bids go up until the highest one wins, NaturETrade NFM allows a reverse auction to occur, where the victors are those who submit lower bids.

In the system’s Somerset’s pilot, farmers were given a choice of six natural flood management measures to bid for. These included:

  • planting crops that stop soil being washed off fields during the winter, after maize has been harvested
  • planting hedges to slow the flow of water
  • aerating soil to increase the amount of rain that can filter into the ground (grassland sub-soiling)

Farmers used an online map to select areas of their land suitable for such measures, then they were encouraged to draw on all their years of local knowledge and experience to give their best ideas and prices for delivering such measures.

After three weeks of this reverse auctioning, 22 bids were successful. Better maize management and hedge-planting were most popular, followed by grassland sub-soiling, soil bunds and leaky ponds and leaky woody dams.

All bids were assessed by FWAG SW to make sure they were feasible and cost-effective.

All landowners who took part in the pilot said they would use the new system again, with nearly three quarters saying this would be ‘extremely likely’. Upsides include avoiding reams of paperwork and letting farmers come up with their own ways of delivering environmental benefits.

Sam Passmore of Manor Farm, Otterhampton near Bridgwater, who successfully bid for a better maize management initiative, said: “Being encouraged to implement measures which will improve our soil health as well as limit the risk of environmental damage, when combined with a financial incentive, should be seen as a win-win situation for us.”

Anthony Gothard of Slough Court Farm, Stoke St Gregory near Taunton, agreed: “The auction has enabled us to focus on better management of our higher risk maize, to improve our soils and reduce the risk of run-off over winter.

He added: “The website was simple to use and could be a good way for farmers to engage with the environment in the future.”

Following the success of this pilot, another auction for natural flood management works in Somerset is now being planned for the New Year.

Cllr John Osman, Chair of Somerset Rivers Authority (SRA), said: “Somerset Rivers Authority has now provided funding for more than 160 natural flood management schemes across Somerset, as part of the pioneering Hills to Levels project to slow the flow of water down through river catchments.

“The project’s already won two national awards, so it’s great to see us all continuing to innovate. Getting more done in better ways to beat flooding is what the SRA is all about.”

Neil Davies, Director for Future Funding at the Environment Agency, said: “This trial proved that auctions can deliver great outcomes for the environment at a lower cost. Managing our land in the right way is essential not only to improving water quality in our rivers but also in reducing the risk of flooding.

“It was great to see land owners becoming so proactively engaged in finding natural solutions that are right for their land. We will therefore build on these excellent results and will continue to find new ways to support them in this important work.”

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