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Landowner is losing up to £250,000 of farmland to coastal erosion each year – but is prevented from protecting his asset

PUBLISHED: 10:00 05 May 2018 | UPDATED: 15:55 05 May 2018

Farmer John Collen and Edward Vere Nicoll of the Benacre Estate on farmland along a fast-eroding stretch of coast. Picture: Nick Butcher

Farmer John Collen and Edward Vere Nicoll of the Benacre Estate on farmland along a fast-eroding stretch of coast. Picture: Nick Butcher

Archant © 2018

After losing up to £250,000 of farmland to coastal erosion in the last 12 months, an East Anglian estate has asked why shoreline policies should protect natural processes at the expense of commercial farmland. CHRIS HILL reports.

Farmer John Collen and Edward Vere Nicoll of the Benacre Estate survey the results of coastal erosion on their land. Picture: Nick ButcherFarmer John Collen and Edward Vere Nicoll of the Benacre Estate survey the results of coastal erosion on their land. Picture: Nick Butcher

Along one of the fastest-eroding stretches of coastline in the country, a farming estate south of Lowestoft is losing 25 acres of land a year.

That’s up to £250,000 of agricultural soil which is now feeding nothing more than a hungry ocean.

But for those who farm this eastern extremity of the UK, the frustration at the wastage of such a valuable resource is exacerbated by an inability to defend it – because their hands are tied by the over-riding shoreline management policy of “no active intervention”.

The 8,000-acre Benacre Estate in north Suffolk includes 6km of crumbling coastline, most of which is covered by environmental designations including a SSSI (Site of Special Scientific Interest).

Coastal defences at Benacre Sluice. Picture: Mike PageCoastal defences at Benacre Sluice. Picture: Mike Page

The only area where it has temporary permission to “hold the line” is to protect the important flood infrastructure of Benacre Sluice, where geotextile bags of beach sediment form an effective short-term defence for the pumping station outfall, which discharges water from the Hundred River into the North Sea.

The estate says this proves their land can be protected relatively inexpensively, at their own cost, which would afford extra protection to homes and nature habitats inland.

Edward Vere Nicoll, estate manager at the Benacre Estate, said while he enjoyed a positive working relationship with conservation agencies on the estate, he could not understand national policies which, although protecting natural processes, prevent him from protecting his land from erosion.

“It’s 25 acres gone every year,” he said. “There is no tax breaks or anything like that. It is a dead loss.

Benacre Sluice in 1993. Picture: Mike PageBenacre Sluice in 1993. Picture: Mike Page

“The permission to protect Benacre Sluice was really hard to get, and Natural England (NE) and the Environment Agency (EA) deserve credit for getting around the table on that.

“But the entire national policy seems completely designed to not protect our land. It is a bitter pill to swallow.

“Whether you are losing houses or habitats, land loss is a very dangerous policy. If you look at Holland they are still actively reclaiming land. The Dutch would never entertain erosion like this.

“Although this is some of the most savage erosion in the whole of the UK, we have succeeded in protecting the sluice with defences costing about £10,000 for 250m. It is a very small amount of money and they are very easy to manage. So it is not about money.”

Mr Vere Nicoll said that temporary protection will remain while talks continue over whether three ageing sluice pumps should be replaced further inland and, as part of that project, the estate has committed to allow 100ha of land to be flooded as part of a “very positive partnership” with the internal drainage boards, Water Management Alliance, NE, EA, and local councils.

Another coastal farmer is John Collen, an East Anglian representative on the National Farmers’ Union’s regional crops board, who is based at nearby Rushmere and farms about 2,500 acres of land, including the UK’s most easterly field.

He said he disagrees with any policy which promotes the erosion of land, whether it is for environmental features, homes, habitats, or commercial food production – as any acre of land lost in the UK will have to be replaced somewhere else to meet global food demand.

“To be prepared to lose land of any description is a dangerous policy to take,” he said. “But to prevent the landowner from protecting their land? We are not talking about tipping waste off a cliff to make space. We are talking about a monitored, regulated way of doing things and that has been denied to us.

“If you live in a Grade 1 listed building, that designation is there to protect the asset. This is the complete opposite. The policy is there to allow the asset to be eroded away. But there is no such thing as a natural process any more. This is a farmed landscape.

“Looking at Defra’s command paper [on post-Brexit farming policy], the thing that is missed completely is that for every acre of arable land lost to whatever – whether it is put into environmental protection, habitat creation or lost to erosion – for every acre lost we need to find two acres somewhere else in the world to equal the same level of food production.

“People still need to be fed. But exporting food production for environmental gain is very dangerous. The policy-makers duck those conversations because they are only looking at national policy when, in fact, a green national policy might be a very detrimental global policy.”

NATURAL ENGLAND RESPONSE

Natural England said nature designations at the coast do not necessarily prevent landowners putting measures in place to manage erosion and flood risk, and Benacre Sluice is one example where this has been allowed.

But any proposals would need to fit the Shoreline Management Plan policy for the area which, in the case of most of Benacre Estate’s coast, is “no active intervention”.

A Natural England spokesperson said: “The Suffolk coast is constantly changing and we provide advice to landowners and local partnerships on managing erosion and flood risk, close to and within protected wildlife sites.

“We have a good working relationship with the Benacre Estate and if they have proposals or ideas for slowing erosion we are very happy to listen and help find solutions, alongside the Environment Agency and the local authority. The proposals would need to fit with the Shoreline Management Plan policy for the stretch of coast, and avoid damaging designated wildlife sites in the area.”


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