In the past decade we have learned again about hedging, now it must be dredging. Both were well known to our forefathers.
In the Fifties we got rid of our hedges, in the Eighties we all stopped clearing our rivers and ditches, dykes and grupps.
Both are needed for proper farm and field maintenance.
When I was a tiny boy I used to watch the Drainage Board workers scything the river in Norfolk. One each side of the river, wading slowly upstream, they pulled a long rope back and forth to which was attached six or seven scythe blades.
Slowly but inexorably they cut the stems of crowfoot and bull-rush, reed and goldcup, which then floated away downstream to the sluice gates under the seawall. And so out into the channels of the sea.
A man would come along after a few days with a very long handled mud rake and free any barrage of weed that was hung up. He would haul out some of the mudshoals too, or loosen them so they floated off as fine silt.
There was no damage done to the ecosystem as we call it today. There were trout under the banks, sea trout running up as big as carp, hundreds of moorhens with enough to shoot on one day of the year for the pâté that mother made with Jersey butter. Reed warblers and sedge warblers kept the cuckoos happy because the banks of the river with their thick growth of sedge and reed grass was where they nested.
Father had all the myriads of grupps cleared by hand on his farm so the meadows drained well enough and sheep cold be grazed there as well as bullocks and dairy cows in winter.
Nobody knew what a mechanical digger was; they all had strong arms instead and lived well into their eighties. Prairie fields were unknown. The hedges slowed the run-off as did the woods.
Two hundred years ago most flood plains across Southern England and the Continent were managed by the practice of ‘meadow watering’. During November, water was channelled off the rivers through sluices to leader drains and returned to the river lower down through deeper drains.
During December all meadows remained flooded, the idea being to protect the grass from the effects of frost.
During January the floods were drained off twice and the meadows dried. In February the water was drained by day and flooded at night. In March the water was finally drained resulting in an early bight of grass for ewes and lambs and in May a superior crop of hay was taken. Meadows were leased by small tenant farmers from Lady Day to May Day.
This flood plain management gave perfect agricultural results in Wiltshire, Gloucestershire, Berkshire, Hampshire, Worcestershire and Dorset, the latter having 6,000 acres alone.
These are all the counties currently suffering from the floods. In a word, we have wrecked much of our land by building on it and losing centuries of knowledge of good husbandry and now we are paying the price.
It seems the situation will only get worse in the century ahead. My father recorded the work he carried out on his farm in his book: “The Story of a Norfolk Farm” now out of print.