Natural Course: Leading the way for natural flood management in the Wyre catchment

When Natural Course was first initiated, natural flood management (NFM) was an emerging topic.  It was not well-tested or implemented in the UK and there were significant evidence gaps.

In this latest article, we chart how our work over the past 7 years has played a critical role in developing the knowledge base, addressing evidence gaps and influencing future ways of working in this field.

Back in 2015, the major storms that hit the Northwest acted as a catalyst for better understanding of the overlap between NFM and improving the condition of rivers.  The evidence suggested that NFM worked in small catchments, however at the time there was no evidence that NFM worked in large catchments and in big storms.

A Natural Course research project modelled three large catchments in Cumbria using a collaborative modelling approach.  NFM opportunities were analysed from priority and maps produced indicating where NFM interventions could have most impact.  Working with stakeholders, we identified priority sub-catchments within these areas which were modelled using dynamic hydrological modelling.

We found that large scale NFM could have made significant difference to flood risk in Storm Desmond, with the reduction in flood risk complementing traditional engineering and the existing natural capital within catchments.

Being able to prioritise NFM at a catchment scale while also enabling multiple benefits to be identified was a significant step forward in this field.  It has helped to increase organisational capacity, plus the delivery experience means NFM was adopted more quickly, for less money and at scale across the Northwest.  The evidence from our work was also used to prepare proposals for alternative and complementary funding such as the £15 million Defra funding made available for NFM across England.

There were, however, still gaps in evidence to support NFM effectiveness at a catchment scale and crucially, the mechanisms to finance NFM still remained one of the biggest barriers to its uptake.

Our Phase 3 project ‘innovative funding for Wyre NFM interventions’ (opens in new tab) had the overall goal of unlocking the mechanisms to enable wider delivery of NFM in the Wyre Catchment.

It began by looking at how the information currently available in the Wyre could be used to develop new funding streams. This was important as a key part of developing new funding streams is to understand the opportunities in the first place, the costs of delivery and potential sources of funding.  The team appraised the previous modelling and worked with farmers and landowners to realise the opportunities on the ground, and an accurate assessment of delivery costs was developed (which included full cost recovery for delivery organisations).

The second stage of the project created a log of investors who have supported NFM interventions.   We found there were several sources of funding, however most were often limited to grants – so while there were increasing mechanisms to source investment, alone these initiatives could not support the delivery of NFM at scale. We also found that funding these initiatives presents its own challenges due to difficulties in accurately predicting their impacts and therefore assessing cost/benefit.

The often-complex nature of NFM impacts combined with the need to show definitive benefits means current funding is largely restricted which emphasized the need to continue building the evidence base for NFM to build confidence to investors.

The final part of the project was therefore to report on the benefits achieved from NFM interventions and build on the evidence based to support these. The Wyre Rivers Trust had been working on a programme of NFM interventions for several years, and since the start of Phase 3, the pace of work increased due to the appointment of a dedicated member of staff with several hundred interventions installed in the catchment. These range from well recognised NFM techniques such as leaky barriers and hedgerows to more complex wetland creation schemes. Monitoring of these interventions was a key focus to help understand their effectiveness. Level loggers installed as part of leaky dam installations record river levels every 5 minutes. These demonstrated that during a high flow flood event there was significant temporary water storage behind the series of leaky barriers, with a peak difference of 19.9% between upstream and downstream water depths. This report also recognised some of the wider benefits of NFM and sets out some approaches to monitoring those benefits. This was particularly important as it helps realise alternative funding opportunities

The outputs from our Wyre NFM project played a fundamental role in the development of the Wyre NFM Investment Readiness project. This project was one of four pilot projects looking at how to attract private investment to help fund nature recovery at scale, and one of the first examples of an ecosystem service-based market.  Officially launched on 31st May 2022, the project will invest £1.5 million of external investment using a new green investment financial model.

This innovative approach brought together all the learnings from Natural Course, built on existing partnerships that have been developed and identified new stakeholders not previously realised. This project offers a very serious solution for investing in natural capital improvements in our landscape, at scale, with multiple environmental benefits for nature, climate change mitigation and adaptation, based on repayment for social impacts valued by wider society.