Recent heavy rain and flooding in communities across Western Europe has prompted increased interest in the role that forests play as natural sponges – and what the EU can do to mitigate the impact of high rainfall.
Recent studies have shown that allowing forests to regenerate in uplands could reduce the rapid run-off of water, providing a long-term cost-effective solution to reducing flooding. Not only do woodlands soils soak up more water than grass, but trees also ‘intercept’ water in their canopies, softening the blow to soil and reducing soil run-off.
A study led by Bangor University in Wales, UK, found that water was absorbed 67 times faster by native woodland than on grass.
Covering 1000 ha, the Pontbren project was a farmer-led initiative; they planted 120,000 native trees (nearly 5 per cent of the area), reinstated 16.5km of hedgerow, and created ponds as well as restoring the wetlands that act as natural reservoirs of water – with no loss of agricultural productivity. The research found also that strategically placed tree belts reduced peak water flows by 29 per cent.
As flooded communities start piecing their lives back together, questions over what the EU can do to mitigate the impact of increased rainfall are being raised. Creating incentives to restore forests strategically could come from the Biodiversity Strategy (particularly Target 2) or the imminent LULUCF decision, which will decide how and where land and forests are integrated into the EU’s climate policy for 2030.
And as the Pontbren project appears to indicate, the EU’s Common Agricultural Programme, with more than a third of the total EU budget at its disposal, could do more to incentivise intelligent decisions on land management.