Could new trees help protect our flood-prone fields and rivers?

The River Waveney Trust is working with the Environment Agency to plant trees and hedgerows along the banks of the Waveney

The River Waveney Trust working with the Environment Agency to plant trees and hedgerows along the banks of the Waveney at Mendham, near Harleston - Credit: Naomi Boyle / EA

Trees and hedges being planted alongside the River Waveney could help ease the twin problems of flooding and water pollution.

Last weekend, the river over-spilled its banks after prolonged wet weather and high spring tides, causing widespread flooding around Geldeston - captured by aerial photographer Mike Page.

Geldeston flooding Norfolk Broads

The banks of the River Waveney and surrounding waterways over-spilled last weekend, causing widespread flooding around Geldeston - Credit: Mike Page

Such floods are becoming increasingly common in a warming climate, adding to the ongoing problems of river pollution.

Those concerns were raised again this week in a worrying report by the government's Environmental Audit Committee, which said only 14pc of English rivers meet good ecological status.

But conservationists in the Waveney valley hope planting new trees and hedges could be part of the long-term solution to both problems.

The River Waveney Trust has started its winter planting season, working with the Environment Agency on a project to plant 276 trees and 90m of hedgerows along the river banks.

The project, funded by Defra's Water Environment Improvement Fund, aims to create food and habitats for wildlife, while capturing carbon and intercepting run-off and pollutants from the land.

But the roots will also help stabilise the river banks and improve the soil's ability to absorb surplus water.

Dr Emily Winter, catchment officer for the River Waveney Trust, said: "A lot of what we talk about in terms of flood prevention and drought resilience, we are talking about the same interventions to tackle both these problems.

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"Things like planting trees can help protect against flooding, because they will take up a lot of water themselves and you are building organic matter in the soil and helping water to infiltrate further into the ground.

"In terms of high rainfall, the water-holding capacity of the soil will be greater, and in terms of drought it will give a slower release into the river. So we are building resilience both ways.

"When it comes to water quality and preventing things getting into the river the best thing that people can do is tackle the source of the pollution.

"What we are doing by planting trees and hedges is intercepting the pathway, we are not tackling the source. So farmers and land managers can do that by managing the amount of nutrients on the land, being careful about the chemicals they are putting on, and not spraying near watercourses."

Dr Emily Winter, catchment officer for the River Waveney Trust

Dr Emily Winter, catchment officer for the River Waveney Trust - Credit: Emily Winter

The trees being planted are a mix of native species including alder, willow, hawthorn, hazel, oak and black poplar.

"The black poplar is an interesting one because they suffered a big decline over recent decades, but it is a typical flood plain species and we are particularly trying to use black poplar with local provenance, taken from cuttings in the Waveney valley," said Dr Winter.

She added that this was a long-term project, with trees taking as much as a decade to reach semi-maturity and some needing to be fenced off to avoid damage from livestock while they are growing.

"The issues that we face in terms of land use change, climate change, and general deterioration of the soils - these have changed the landscape over a long period of time so we are looking at longer-term solutions.

"We are improving our soil health, we want the soil to act more like a sponge, rather than a barrier to water infiltration - and more trees and more hedges, these things all help water get into the ground."

Dr Winter said reconnecting rivers with their flood plains is also important - and the recent flooding at Geldeston was an example of a working flood plain in action.

"A lot of river banks have been raised through dredging," she said. "That flooded land at Geldeston is a natural flood plain so we should expect to see that land flooding on a regular basis.

"Rivers flooding is a natural process and it is not necessarily a bad thing to see, because it delivers a lot of sediment and nutrients to the surrounding land. Historically it would have provided very fertile land alongside the river.

"If we can find a way to maintain that along with all our businesses and homes we have built on flood plains, we will be going a long way to improving the ecology of the rivers."