It has been raining here for two months. Nearly 50 inches of rain have fallen in that short time. When we woke on Boxing Day the valley below was sheeted with grey water – the Lliw had burst its banks. All the water around here ends up in Bala Lake so we drove down to assess the situation. Upstream the lake had backed up, flooding half a mile of farmland; at the town end waves, driven by a 50mph wind, slapped against the top of the floodwall, spray flying everywhere. We decided conditions were too bad for our traditional visit to family an hour’s drive away.
Unexpectedly having time on my hands I headed for the woods in the afternoon. Despite its strength the wind was soft, almost warm. It was 12 degrees last night – warmer than some summer days this year. The fields were saturated, the ground unable to accept any more water, it was just running off the surface. The stream at the edge of the wood was hissing and foaming, murky with silt, as it careered towards the already flooded valley. In the eddies thousands of rush-stems flushed out from the margins were patterned and meshed together in rafts. Once in under the trees I sat down on a mossy bank and tried to imagine what it would be like for a wren, or some other small creature, under these conditions. It didn’t seem too bad. The wind was thrashing the tops of the trees but down here it was still, and the drizzle barely penetrated. It wasn’t cold, and cold is the greatest energy drainer for birds and animals; also frozen ground makes food hard to find. There was plenty of shelter: stumps, boulders, bushes and trees, plus soft decaying wood and a carpet of moss to be picked over for food. I could hear nothing except the wind in the treetops and the gurgling of the stream. The thin calls of half a dozen redwings, looking for a place to roost, briefly broke the silence. Then a two second burst of song from a wren, which cut out in mid syllable. Nothing, that I could see, moved except a single leaf shaking on its axis as if traumatised. In these saturated conditions the winter half-light created an atmosphere like being underwater. Ground level in these woods seemed a lot easier than in the exposed conditions outside.
There have always been floods in this valley. This is a wet place. We are used to dragging on our waterproofs every time we leave the house. Usually we hunker down with a ‘seen it all before attitude’ but there is a new edge to my weary acceptance now. ‘Worse (and better) than ever before’ weather has always come and gone; it is in the nature of things. But recently a nagging thought that ‘something is wrong’ colours my perception. The torrential rain, floods, gales and record high temperatures we are currently experiencing are right in line with climate change predictions. Flooding is recognised as the number one threat to the UK from this pattern. It is this that makes me uneasy sitting in the woods, and leads to the corollary of ‘something has to be done’. A crisis like the latest calamitous floods in the north of England can sometimes alter perceptions and provoke political action. One of the things that could be done is to re-afforest some of our denuded uplands, where most of the rain falls. This would gradually create a natural, slow-release, trickle-down system, so preventing all the water arriving at once around our villages, towns and cities. Perhaps governments will begin to consider what is needed to hold up the water and propose redirecting agricultural subsidies to grow trees instead of sheep, or at least offering this as an option for farmers. If so, I fervently hope this would mean native broadleaved trees rather than imported conifers. The former offers great potential for wildlife and landscape quality, as well as soaking up the rain. Such a shift in policy would have profound implications for farming, wildlife and landscape in the British uplands. It could be an interesting year ahead.