Science: Go wet, young man, to save the waterfowl: The Somerset wetlands are drying out and radical solutions are needed. Sanjida O'Connell reports

Later this week, the president of the National Farmers' Union, David Naish, will visit one of Britain's largest and most environmentally important wetlands, the Somerset Levels. Following the recent heavy rain, local farmers fear ruin after the worst floods in the area since the Sixties. They hope to persuade the National Rivers Authority (NRA) to step up its pumping regime.

Despite the flooding, these wetlands are drying out. Since the Seventies, more than half the birds breeding on the Somerset Levels have disappeared. The reason is simple. There is a vacuum where there should be coherent policy, and confusion where there should be responsibility. And the situation is similar in other wetland areas.

The Somerset wetlands cover 56,650 hectares (150,000 acres) and contain 10 protected sites of special scientific interest. It is an important area for waterfowl that migrate to Britain for the winter and for wading birds that breed here in summer; but the numbers have sunk so low that in some places there are barely any birds left. According to a recent RSPB survey, snipe have dwindled by 70 per cent and dunlin have plummeted from 3,000 in 1976 to 22.

The drying out of the wetlands spells disaster for the birds. The levels should flood regularly in winter, creating a soft, marshy environment, encouraging the invertebrates they feed on and producing the right soil for the thick, tussocky grass in which the birds build their nests. If there are no floods and the land dries out rapidly in spring the breeding birds are prevented from successfully rearing their young. In addition, the dryer land is often used for livestock, and cattle tend to trample nests and chicks.

Given the drenching we've recently received, it's unlikely any Briton would consider that the wetlands are no longer wet because of a drop in rainfall. But Dr Rhys Green and Dr Mark Robins of the RSPB wanted to check whether climate change was responsible. Looking back over rainfall data, they concluded that rain levels have not changed; if anything, springs have become wetter. What has been happening is that the NRA has been draining the wetlands. It operates a series of drainage ditches and pumps and the threshold at which the pumps are working is much lower than it was.

So why can't the NRA change the levels at which it pumps water? Unfortunately, it's not that simple. The Internal Drainage Board (IDB), which represents the local farming community, decides the pumping levels. On the IDB committee are landowners and farmers, but it is unclear how they make their decisions. The levels the IDB set have been consistently low since the Second World War, but have not changed much over the past 10 years, according to Lin Jenkins, conservation officer for the NRA south- west region. But she and Dr Robins agree that since the effect is cumulative, the damage has already been done.

The best option is a more radical approach: to stop farming the land intensively and allow it to 'go wet'. Farmers can receive compensation for this from the ESA (Environmentally Sensitive Area's committee). It is the highest payment of its kind in the country, and is supposed to compensate for the loss of productivity and enable the farmer to keep the land in an environmentally beneficial way. 'We're at that stage where some farmers have taken up the grants and the others are waiting to see how it goes,' says Ms Jenkins. Dr Robins sees signs of a substantial demand to go into the ESA; 1,300-1,400 acres have gone wet and another 400 are expected to by next summer. Compensation is expensive but, says Dr Robins: 'It actually costs more to run a high-intensity pump scheme than it does to go for a wetter option.'

But in practice this means that only small islands of wetlands are created in large dry areas. To prevent this haphazard approach and to maintain the wetlands, some kind of central policy is needed. Because the grants from the ESA originally come from the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and because MAFF is the political master of both the NRA and the IDB, it would seem logical that MAFF should formulate an official policy.

Fortunately, there is still time; wetlands are remarkably resilient. When West Sedgemoor, a previously threatened wetland habitat, was allowed to become wetter, wintering birds quickly returned, and a population of 50,000 was recorded.

Whether all species would return is another question; the summer breeding waders give fewer grounds for optimism, primarily because there are so few of them to start with that it takes a while for the numbers to creep back up. West Sedgemoor is beginning to pick up. Only after the bird population has begun to expand do other animals and wetland plants start to recover. Dr Robins says: 'It's a very worrying question - would you get the same species that were there before? Probably not, but you'd get something damn near it.'

The various organisations need to get their act together. Although there are no formal means for the government bodies to work together, Ms Jenkins believes: 'There's quite a lot of co- operation behind the scenes. With the NRA about to embark on a major strategy review, now seems an ideal period to take advantage of that co-operation.'

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