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Ditches – the unsung heroes of rural flood defence
By Jennifer Holmes

Ditches – the unsung heroes of rural flood defence

As we move through winter, we have firmly arrived at the ‘flooding season’ in the UK. Flood risk is typically at its highest from November through to February. During this time ditches play a vital role in defending rural areas from flooding.

In this post we talk about the importance of ditches, maintaining them and the unexpected benefits they provide to wildlife.

The role of the humble ditch

Ditches – not something that’s easy to make into an exciting topic, but they really are fascinating as they play a very important role in the country – and increasingly for wildlife. But what’s their purpose?

Ditches drain excess surface water away from the land before water levels can put property, roads and people at risk of flooding. They help to restrict flooding to the floodplain and allow the safe flow of excess water. Ditches can also be used for water storage which can benefit farmland and estates.

Farmland tends to have boundary ditches that are designed to contain or catch water run-off from fields, agricultural land or higher ground. Without these ditches, such water would likely end up covering road surfaces.

Important for land owners and communities

Rural areas rely on ditches for the removal of water and their effectiveness is essential for keeping roads open and in good condition and aiding in flood prevention.

While floods affect both urban and rural areas, remote rural areas that are prone to flooding bring unique risks. They tend to be harder to reach and susceptible to flooding in a multitude of ways – either through overflowing rivers or in situations where the water table is saturated.

Additionally, rural communities tend to have more landowners of both estates and farms. It is the responsibility of the landowners to maintain and upkeep their land, whereas in urban areas, that responsibility often falls to the local council.

In recent months, the Department for Environment Flood and Rural affairs published a joint report with the Environment agency that concluded there will be a shift towards ‘living with floods’, and that Flood Risk Management (FRM) should become a key part of rural policy.

Rural areas tend to have greater use of ditches (especially for drainage) where they may not have other more urbanised drainage systems in place.

Why do we need to maintain ditches?

These days, we are experiencing increased levels of development, more intense rainfall events and the increased risk to biodiversity from invasive species that contributes to things like bank erosion. Bank erosion in itself causes its own issues – allowing waterways to flow more freely taking with them particles and fragments of invasive weeds to further grounds. As a result, it is now more important than ever to maintain and improve the country’s land drainage systems.

Ditch clearance and maintenance provides the following benefits:

  • Reduced risk of flooding: Draining excess surface water away before water levels reach critical levels protects people and the environment from flooding.
  • Reduced Liability for Landowners: If a flood is found to have been caused by a landowner neglecting their riparian responsibilities, they may be liable for compensation claims as a result of any damage that occurs.

Predictions for climate change indicate that we will have much more severe weather conditions in the UK and that the risk of flooding will continue to increase. Keeping ditches clear and considering the implementation of ditches when landscaping will be top considerations for rural areas going forward.

Ditches can be maintained directly by the landowners, or you can hire a suitable contractor who has the equipment and experience to carry out maintenance of the ditches in your property.

Extra important in winter

It is ideal to carry out maintenance on ditches in winter as we tend to experience a lot of rainfall in the UK. During this fallen leaves create large volumes of rotting leaf-debris and sediment that combines with mud – clogging ditches and drain outflows.

Additionally, when there are frosts followed by periods of heavy rain, this creates large amounts of run-off water as it can’t penetrate the soil. So, ensuring that ditches are in top shape going into the winter will help protect rural and residential communities from the threat of flooding.

Unexpected benefits to wildlife

By creating ditches around the UK to protect against flooding also creates some excellent habitats for wildlife. In a time when habitat destruction is one of the leading threats to biodiversity, being able to create habitats is a brilliant side-effect to have.

One such animal benefiting from the creation of ditches is the water vole. Once a common sight in the UK, water voles have declined by 90% over the last 30 years – primarily due to habitat loss – and it is now a protected species.

Water Voles (and others) are making their home in ditches and with careful maintenance by environmentally conscious landowners or contractors and using a ditch rotation method, it’s possible to help these species to thrive.

What else can rural communities do to aid flood defence?

One major risk is the erosion of riverbanks, which play a key role in holding back or slowing the flow of water. There are several things you can do to mitigate the dangerous flow of water and aid flood defence are:

Plant some trees – By far one of the best methods to protect against flooding. The roots of the tree can help stabilise the ground, slow the flow of water, drink up water from the water table and provide rain cover.

Create a wildflower meadow – By planting appropriate wildflowers on verges and banks it is possible to help build additional stability into the ground, helping to prevent erosion.

Support native biodiversity – Lots of invasive weed species (such as Himalayan balsam) have a detrimental effect on riverbanks. They spread quickly and outcompete local wildlife, pushing it out. When they die off, they leave riverbanks exposed and vulnerable to erosion. Controlling these weeds is vital to protect the natural environment and sustain biodiversity.

Wrapping it up

Ditches – the unsung heroes – play an important role in the flood defense of rural and urban communities and have some unexpected benefits to wildlife.

If you’d like to know how we can help with vegetation clearance and ditch maintenance get in touch.