Willow slows monumental flood

LAST DECEMBER FLOODS CAME AND DESTROYED PASTURELAND, YET THE WILLOW STOOD STRONG. THAT’S THE STORY AT STEVEN CLARK’S 121HA (300 AC) BRAITHWAITE FARM IN KESWICK, WHERE 28 ACRES ARE PLANTED WITH EIGHT VARIETIES OF SRC WILLOW.

In this picture the crop was cut back with a finger bar mower last year. After a few more summers it will be due for harvesting then again every three years after that.

Historic flooding swept through many open fields, casting rail sleepers and debris about. Giant holes and islands of stones still remain in the fields, requiring excavators to return them to normal. Although, the willow bent with the water’s force yet it popped back up like nothing had happened.

“Our willows effectively stopped the rail sleepers, and even added a safety benefit, keeping them from reaching the Derwent River. By contrast the sheer power from the water flowing onto the land ripped it up like a carpet,” says Steven.

TWICE HIS HEIGHT THIS SPRING
The mix of willow varieties is now close to 4 meters high. Planted in 2014 and cut back last year, growth is fast paced. “If I’m not out here for a week, I am shocked to see six inches of growth when I return,” adds Steven.

“I have only two years remaining to my first harvest.” “The payback over time will come in handy for other projects around the farm. It’s a smart move for fellow farmers to consider willow as part of their diversification. I’m also starting a business around chips for bio-fuel boilers on farms. New ideas are essential for our survival.” Steven, who took over from his father, left dairy farming behind some years ago, and more recently beef cattle. Now his only livestock is sheep. “Every commodity goes up and down, and beef cattle and dairy have been hard hit in recent years.” He has encouraged small creative enterprises to locate at his farm, enjoying the stunning views of the fells. And there’s paragliding, too. As he puts it, “New growth always matters to a farmer. Now this includes a wide range of crops and enterprises, which all benefit from our land, and the uniqueness of where we are located in and around the Lake District.”

A NOTE ABOUT WETLANDS
“We have always had wet land in the Lake District, and often it reverts back to marsh land. After a really wet summer a few years ago, I needed to re-seed it and that is when I thought about doing something different. “We planted rows of the crop beside a beck which flows into the River Derwent. Steven marvels over willow’s hardiness and potential for land like his. He says additional willow planting could make sense on an adjacent 60 ha (150 ac) section of rented land. He believes this could have prevented the pasture from being ‘wrecked’. Simply stated, a willow plantation has the ability to hold water back within and immediately upstream of the energy crop plantation. It can slow the speed of water spread across the floodplain. The lack of dead wood associated with SRC willow can also reduce the wash-out of woody debris and therefore reduce the risk of downstream blockage of river structures. Because the crop does not need to be harvested annually, if the crop is flooded, it can be left until the next harvest window.