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Jeremy's Blog 10th May 2024: Land Drainage - A Key Investment

This article by Jeremy Moody first appeared in the CAAV e-Briefing of 9th May 2024

Land drainage and the management of water offer one of the ways to tell the story of our landscapes as millennia of hard work have made a wet land productive. Even now, for many soils having good field drainage is the precondition for land to give its potential – becoming more important with the spread of no-till practices. With 40 years since the last major wave of drainage investment, this winter has shown many farmers the weaknesses from its decay.

With early farming on chalk soils and, as climate allowed, the uplands before the advance of peat, work turned to heavier soils. The enormous and unremarked labour over the centuries of digging the ditches of Britain enabled the benefits of improving plough technology. The hedges planted on the banked spoil from the ditches gave the thorns drier roots. Ridge and furrow again gave drainage benefits.

Within the network of ditches and watercourses, laborious investment in underground field drains have made land greatly more productive. Originally using brushwood and stone, work gathered momentum with agricultural fortunes in the later eighteenth century. Warwickshire’s John Elkington, experimenting with deep drains to stop liver rot in his sheep by relieving confined ground water, developed the Elkington system, and was personally recognised by George III with a gold ring. Encouraged by the Board of Agriculture, clay pipes butted against each other were used across Britain, being exempted from tax in 1826. Prices fell with improved manufacture and the scale of work was eased by government and private loans.

Work stalled with agricultural depression but finding in the First World War that deteriorating drainage hindered food production, the government then worked on arterial drainage, reforming drainage bodies, to ease flooding. The renewed focus of food production from the Second World War saw substantial grant aid until the early 1980s when new underdrainage was part of doubling cereals yields per acre. Tractors and their development enabled more effective mole ploughing and sub-soiling.

Drainage grants ceased with the combined senses that what should have been drained had been and that going further was environmentally prejudicial. Since then, we have lived on the fat of that major investment.

Which brings us to the challenge of today, with the greater likelihood of torrential rainfall saturating land, frustrating sowing, growth and harvest, emphasised by the last few months. Needing now to produce more from less so that we improve both nature and agricultural productivity, maintaining the drainage of our productive land increasingly calls for improved care and reinvestment. The care is making sure that drains as well as outfalls work. The reinvestment is where older drains have not lasted well in some soils. It is also in improving soils, as greater organic matter helps both drainage and water and nutrient retention with other benefits for crops and pasture. Just as comparing a mixed species pasture with ryegrass in dry weather makes its point, so does comparing a drained and an undrained field in recent wet weather. The management of water beyond the ditch does then become an issue with the increasing interest in holding water back, slowing its flow in stream and river courses – a tension we need to manage.

That makes a larger point. 31 years of area payments have not driven the competitiveness and productivity improvement needed for farming to be a healthy sector of the economy. A focus on investment, rather than support or protection, will do more for profits and the UK’s part in food security for our growing population. England’s SFI can help with soil improvement but drainage is a prime issue; if Government helped, whether with capital allowances, grants or other means, it would then stand on the shoulders of its predecessors over two centuries.

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