FARMERS near the River Parrett and River Tone have successfully bid for £30,000 of funding in the country’s first online auction for building natural flood management (NFM) measures into their land management.

The pilot, the first of its kind, included the introduction of a new online auction system called NaturEtrade NFM, which enables farmers to bid for funding for projects that help to manage floods through natural measures.

Farmers in the Tone and Parrett catchments were able to use an online map to select areas of their land on which they could implement the various natural measures, then bid for the amount of funding they could provide that measure for.

The online reverse auction system, which was open for three weeks, invited farmers to submit competitive bids that remained cost effective in delivering the selected measure.

The most competitive bids across the six measures were awarded funding.

The pilot encourages land managers to introduce measures such as planting crops that stop soil being washed off fields in winter, to planting hedges to slow the flow of water, and to aerating the soil to increase the amount of rain filtering into the ground.

In the first auction 22 bids were successful, with better maize management proving to be the most popular option.

The scheme has been developed by the Environment Agency in partnership with the Farming & Wildlife Advisory Group SouthWest (FWAGSW) and Natural England, through the Catchment Sensitive Farming initiative, with funding being provided by Somerset Rivers Authority (SRA).

The Environment Agency’s innovative new online app enabled landowners and farmers in the catchments in Somerset to bid for the SRA funding through a simple online tool, thereby avoiding reams of paperwork and allowing farmers to come up with their own ways of delivering environmental benefits.

All of the landowners who took part in the pilot reported that they would use the new system again, with nearly three quarters saying that this would be ‘extremely likely’.

Successful bidders will benefit from a total of over £17.5k for better maize management and £5.5k for planting hedges across Somerset, with a further £8k allocated to other measures, which will all help to increase water storage and reduce flooding.

Anthony Gothard of Slough Court Farm, Stoke St Gregory nr Taunton, said: “The auction has enabled us to focus on better management of our higher risk maize, to improve our soils and reduce the risk of run-off over winter.

“The website was simple to use and could be a good way for farmers to engage with the environment in the future.”

Meanwhile Sam Passmore of Manor Farm, Otterhampton near Bridgwater, added: “Being encouraged to implement measures which will improve our soil health as well as limit the risk of environmental damage, when combined with a financial incentive, should be seen as a win-win situation for us.

“The onus is on us as farmers to ensure that our management decisions prior to and during the growing season ensure that the measures set out by the maize management specification can be implemented on time and effectively year on year.”

Following the success of this pilot, another auction for natural flood management works in Somerset is now being planned for the New Year.

Neil Davies, director for Future Funding at the Environment Agency, said: “This trial proved that auctions can deliver great outcomes for the environment at a lower cost.

"Managing our land in the right way is essential not only to improving water quality in our rivers but also in reducing the risk of flooding.

“It was great to see land owners becoming so proactively engaged in finding natural solutions that are right for their land. We will therefore build on these excellent results and will continue to find new ways to support them in this important work.”

Cllr John Osman, chairman of Somerset Rivers Authority (SRA), said: “Somerset Rivers Authority has now provided funding for more than 160 natural flood management schemes across Somerset, as part of the pioneering Hills to Levels project to slow the flow of water down through river catchments.

“The project’s already won two national awards, so it’s great to see us all continuing to innovate. Getting more done in better ways to beat flooding is what the SRA is all about.”