Feedback on the Environment Agency Survey Awareness Training Workshop (Leeds)

On Friday 4th August, WTT were invited to contribute to a workshop on Survey Awareness Training, organised by the Environment Agency at Lateral House in Leeds. This was in response to the tree works across Yorkshire which caused some consternation and has already resulted in the production of a briefing note – Tree Works: Lessons Learned.

The stated aim was to provide a clear message to EA staff and external surveyors involved in tree management, to ensure that survey work will be carried out in a consistent manner using the methodology provided during the workshop.

Both Jonny Grey and Paul Gaskell were involved both in the field and in the news at various times in the build up to this workshop, which morphed and changed date on numerous occasions. Ultimately, Jonny gave the presentation on Friday and here reports back for us.

Around 90 people attended the workshop, from various Fisheries, Biodiversity & Geomorphology (FBG), and Flood & Coastal Risk Management (FCRM) teams, from across the Yorkshire & NE region.

The FCRM perspective of trees was presented by Sarah Burtonwood & Jos Wattam. There was a distinct focus on managing trees on EA assets, i.e. flood banks, rather than in natural and semi-natural watercourses which to my mind avoided the focus of the meeting.

While mention was made of debris accumulating on screens and blinding bridges, from the photographic evidence presented, the contribution from living material (i.e. that which a flood had actually caused to break off rather than simply already dead and detached material transported by the flood) appeared negligible. My discussion re the living material I saw removed from the Aire actually performing a valuable ecosystem service by filtering out the real debris, and that removal of each of these filters was simply allowing more debris to accumulate downstream, seemed to float right by.

Mention was made of the Assets Maintenance Standard handbook, which essentially outlines a traffic light system’, and while there was lip service paid to green light scenarios of retaining a tree in situ or moving it / stabilising it, there was no discussion as to how the EA’s own existing documentation (Working with Natural Processes, and Keeping Rivers Cool / Getting Ready for Climate Change) actually influenced the decision making process in the field as to whether a tree benefitted from a green or was shown a straight red.

Richard Anelay, now of EA National Capital Programme Management Service, introduced a new process by which FBG team members (and contracted ecologists) may input to the development of any detailed Environmental Action Plans. This seemed like a worthwhile development, but from an outsider perspective, one cannot help but wonder whether there will be an override button: FCRM trumps FBG.

Protected Species Issues was presented by Andrew Virtue, a Biodiversity Officer liaising with the Assets Performance teams. Andrew did a sterling job of covering the majority of legal protection for various species that are likely to be influenced by tree works. He did omit the Salmon and Freshwater Fisheries Act 1975 which states that it is an offence to wilfully disturb any spawn or spawning fish, or any bed, bank or shallow on which any spawn or spawning fish may be, but he has already included it in documents arising and moving forward!

I presented the case for the trees (aided by slides from Paul) and below are messages I wanted people to take away:

  • Trees perform all manner of valuable ecosystem services, including aspects of natural flood management
  • There aren’t enough of them – look at our tree cover versus the rest of Europe!
  • All instream wood is creating habitat, directly and indirectly via flow affecting geomorphology. This is especially important on rivers like the Aire that have been heavily modified and in many places are simple trapezoidal channels in cross-section.
  • All trailing and overhanging branches contribute benefits to fauna as well – from food and egg-laying substrate, to shade and shelter, to fishing perches and focal points for aerial mating swarms. It’s important to appreciate ecology for all life-stages and at very different times during the year.
  • If it’s stable (living, survived the three worst floods on record, etc), leave it be – otherwise do consider helping to stabilise it in situ rather than expend resources removing it (and hence removing all associated ecosystem benefits along with it).
  • Provide compelling evidence that Flood Risk will be reduced by removal, i.e. that taxpayers money is being spent well.
  • Consider a quick and dirty cost-benefit analysis of what it costs to remove debris from amongst living trees (OK) and trees themselves (questionable in most instances given the above) versus what could be achieved with the same money for Natural Flood Management. Without any tangible evidence of a reduction in flooding, how can such expenditure of public money be justified? We all make mistakes and hopefully learn from them, but I dread to think how much has been spent to date on reviewing and refining this process.

Gavin Usher (Operations Team Leader) summed up that he hoped the Yorkshire area response to improve process and practice in how tree works surveys and consultations are carried out in the future would be seen as a good example by the EA nationally. And that this was not box ticked, that the outcomes of the workshop would contribute to further development of both process and practice.

We shall see.