34-year-old farmer, Jonathan Smith, is standing on the beach that lies next to his field. Lucky man, you might think. But the problem for Smith, an organic farmer on St Martin’s in the Isles of Scilly, is that the beach is about ten foot closer to his fields than it was 18 months ago. Sand and salt are not good for crop production.
Fierce storms hit the Isles of Scilly in February 2014. They coincided with high spring tides and low pressure. The result was extensive erosion along the coastline and sand being thrown half a mile inland. A thick Pittisporum hedge used to shield Smith’s potato, carrot, squash and leek fields from the storms. Half of it has gone.
Perhaps it’s no wonder then that the Isles of Scilly Council has developed a plan to cope with climate change. ‘We are used to being hit by big storms,’ says Diana Mompoloki, Strategic Development manager at the council. ‘And we pick ourselves up again. Some things you can change and some things you can’t. We know climate change is coming. If we keep on fighting it we are not going to win. Realistically, we are never going to win.’
Instead, she says there will be a ‘managed retreat’ across the low-lying archipelago. The council has a series of maps that show just where they’re expecting the water to come to in ten, 40 and 90 years time. Smith’s farm isn’t on the map showing severely endangered places yet, but the council’s report states that there is expected to be from five to 60m of erosion around St Martin’s over the next 100 years. The area where his farm lies is at risk of some erosion, according to the council’s predictions. It talks of ‘sections of the coastal footpath’ which run alongside his fields needing ‘re-routing’ and that fields ‘may be affected’. And that could affect Smith’s farm.
‘I was really, really frightened,’ he says of the storm in 2014. ‘There was a point when I thought that all the trees were going to go. Now I’m quite seriously concerned about a quarter of my fields. If sea levels rise and storms become more frequent, there will be several fields that I won’t be able to use in the future. I can’t justify the expense of sea defences. So, either I’ll have to grow more crops or find more land if I lose fields. That brings a huge amount of uncertainty.’
The uncertainty is felt on other islands too. On the island of St Agnes, farmer Sam Hicks (37) has six acres of land that his family has worked for 300 years.
His Jersey and Ayrshire cows’ milk is used to produce ice cream, butter, cream and yoghurt that’s sold across the five inhabited islands.
He also runs a campsite on his land. During last year’s storms, it was completely inundated. Some 120m of dry stonewall was knocked over. Picnic tables floated across fields. And the sea threw big boulders 20 to 30ft inland. ‘I couldn’t lift them myself,’ says Hicks. ‘I had do it by machine. It was a reminder that we are a little island. It took us a month to clear up. I was worried because we promote this campsite as being close to the ocean. But it’s my livelihood. Would it be able to be used?’
If this type of natural attack becomes a regular event, Hicks would have to think of moving the campsite. But all nearby fields are being used. ‘We teeter on the brink of viability anyway,’ he says. ‘A sea level rise could really push that further and put us in jeopardy.’
The bad news for Hicks is that sea levels around the Isles of Scilly will continue to rise, according to the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). It reports that by the end of this century, sea levels could rise by 29 to 83cm, depending on the amount of CO2 released into the atmosphere.
‘What we know,’ says Professor Kevin Horsburgh, Head of Marine Physics at the National Oceanography Centre (NOC), ‘is that Europe and Great Britain tend to be on the same trend as global average values. There’s no reason to suppose that our sea level rise will be different from that suggested by IPCC.’
Currently, the NOC’s own records for the Isles of Scilly show an average sea level rise of 1.5mm per year. It doesn’t sound like much, but add in storm surges and high tides, and as Smith experienced, you can have a problem.
‘The sea level is rising,’ says Horsburgh. ‘Even if we stabilise our CO2 emissions, the ocean has a long memory and sea levels will continue to rise for the next 300 to 400 years. Choices will have to be made. The shape of the coastline will naturally change.’
Whilst this is a concern for all of the Scilly Isles, the area most at risk is the sandy isthmus on the main island of St Mary’s. Some 1,800 of the islands’ 2,200-strong population live on St Mary’s. The bulk of them live in the two small towns on the isthmus: Hugh Town and Old Town.
‘Huge amounts of sand were carried into Hugh Town in the storms of February 2014,’ says Diana Mompoloki. ‘The main street was covered in sand. It looked like we had done a comedy thing. We cleared the sand using community cleaning days when people gave up their time and equipment for free. This took two weekends.’
The council’s climate change plan states that the seafront at Hugh Town, the centre of island and tourist life, ‘will become more vulnerable to wave overtopping and inundation during storms’. Sea defences have been built along the town’s beach that abuts shops, restaurants and houses. ‘It is unlikely to be sustainable to hold the current defensive position in the longer term,’ says the council’s report.
All this suggests that, in the future, there are chunks of the Isles of Scilly that simply won’t be there anymore. ‘Nothing is for ever,’ says Mompoloki.
This sense of permanence and impermanence held in balance is prevalent across the islands. It’s in the geology of the place, which is thought originally to have been one island: Ennor. But the sea has encroached repeatedly over the years currently resulting in an archipelago of 147 islands, five of which are inhabited. Even a local guide to the islands says, ‘Tidal surges are gradually drowning Scilly’.
Back on St Martin’s, Smith is uncertain about how to plan for an unknown future. He’s piling hedge cuttings up against the eroding bank, hoping that sand will get into it and marram grass will then grow forming a solid dune.
‘I need to plant more hedges behind this,’ he says. ‘But they may take too long to grow, but at least the fields would be protected from the winds. In the long term we’ll just have to see what happens. It’s difficult to know what to do.
‘It’s funny,’ he says looking at the turquoise sea lapping gently against the white sandy beach, ‘on a day like this you don’t think about it. But when the winter comes and you get serious storms, then you feel at the mercy of the elements, really.’