North Yorkshire town worked with nature to beat the floods
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January 4, 2016

While the sodden, submerged North of Britain was, literally, wringing out the old year last week, one notorious Yorkshire flood blackspot was celebrating staying dry.

Pickering, North Yorkshire, pulled off protection by embracing the very opposite of what passes for conventional wisdom. On its citizens’ own initiative, it ended repeated inundation by working with nature, not against it.

Few places have better reason than Pickering to want to keep nature at bay. Stuck at the bottom of a steep gorge draining much of the North Yorks Moors, it was flooded four times between 1999 and 2007, with the last disaster doing £7 million of damage.

Mike Potter, chairman of the Pickering and District Civic Society, explained that a local environmentalist outlined how the moors had traditionally released rainwater much more slowly – and how, centuries ago, monks at nearby Byland Abbey had built a bund to hold it back. So, the town decided to try to go back to the future.

In collaboration with top academics from Oxford, Newcastle and Durham Universities they examined all options and decided that the best plan would be to try to recreate past conditions by slowing the flow of water from the hills. Impressed by the intellectual endorsement, official bodies like the local councils, the Environment Agency, the Forestry Commission and even the Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, joined in.

They built 167 leaky dams of logs and branches – which let normal flows through but restrict and slow down high ones – in the becks above the town; added 187 lesser obstructions, made of bales of heather and fulfilling the same purpose, in smaller drains and gullies; and planted 29 hectares of woodland. And, after much bureaucratic tangling, they built a bund, to store up to 120,000 cubic metres of floodwater, releasing it slowly through a culvert.

After 24 hours of rain, just three months after it was inaugurated, Mr Potter climbed up to the scheme and found it working well. Then he went home, “switched on the TV, and saw the all the floodwaters elsewhere”. He adds: “While there was devastation all over northern England, our newly completed defences worked a treat and our community got on with life as normal.” The total cost, he says, was around £2m.

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