INCREDIBLE before and after photos have highlighted how a rewilding scheme near Skipton can reduce flooding along the River Aire in North and West Yorkshire, and led to calls for the project to be extended.

The estate of Broughton Sanctuary, which is just off the A59 , sits in the catchment area for the River Aire, so any excess water run-off has a major impact on flooding further downstream in major urban centres such as Skipton, Keighley, Bradford and Leeds.

Since 2021 the Broughton estate has been on a mission to re-wild 1,100 acres – around one third – of its land. This includes planting 230,000 trees and reducing sheep grazing, allowing the soil to hold more rainwater and slow run-off into nearby rivers.

Bradford Telegraph and Argus: Before and after pictures at Broughton Sanctuary

Three years on, new photos have been released which shows that  efforts are already having a positive effect of alleviating flooding in the area.

In January 2021, when sheep still grazed the fields and before large-scale tree planting had begun, 131mm of rainfall over the previous four weeks produced huge amounts of surface water. This quickly found its way into the river systems due to the compacted nature of the soil.

In comparison, after 133mm of rainfall in the four weeks leading up to January 2024 photos show significantly less surface water, with rain soaked up by the more sponge-like wild grassland and released more slowly into the river system.

Professor Alastair Driver, director of Rewilding Britain, says that there are multiple benefits to Broughton Sanctuary’s scheme and a reduction in flooding is one that we are currently seeing. “It’s not the trees themselves that are doing the bulk of the work here,” he says. “As you can see from the photos, the trees are still very small.

Bradford Telegraph and Argus: Before and after pictures at Broughton Sanctuary

“Previously when rain fell in this area it was landing on soil that had been compacted by the pitter patter of tiny sheep feet. This creates a ‘pan effect’ and causes the water to run straight down the hill. It is like a snooker table because of how short the sheep keep the grass.

“Now the sheep have been moved and we have broken up that surface soil, letting wild grasses grow, which allows water to soak in far easier. The ground and grass now acts like a sponge, slowly releasing the water into streams and rivers over time rather than all at once, so we don’t see water levels rise so rapidly.”

Despite major improvements from this project already being seen in the comparison photos, Prof Driver expects to see its impact increase in the coming years as the trees mature.

“As the trees get older their root systems will develop and they will start to allow more rain to soak in as well. We know that trees make a big difference to infiltration, so they will gradually do more and more as every year passes.”

Bradford Telegraph and Argus: Before and after pictures at Broughton Sanctuary

Prof Driver says schemes such as the one in Broughton can offer a solution to the extreme weather events we will see more regularly as our climate changes.

“We are seeing some settlements with frequent extreme weather events, once every ten years for example, become perhaps once every five years instead. This not only will have a major impact on people’s property, but also vital infrastructure like roads and railways.

“This approach to flood management doesn’t need exploring or investigating any more. We don’t need more talk, we need more action like is being taken at Broughton Sanctuary. We have repeated examples from around the country over the last 20 years that have been measured and assessed, and we know it works.

“It is time to stop talking and roll this approach out at much greater scale. Currently only 1 per cent of the flood budget is spent on this kind of scheme across England. It’s not a silver bullet but it should be at least 10-20 per cent, and then we would see widespread benefits.”

Bradford Telegraph and Argus: Before and after pictures at Broughton Sanctuary

Prof Driver also points out that the rewilding scheme not only helps with flooding, but also contributes to greater biodiversity, better water quality, and even natural carbon storage. It is also compatible with profitable farming.

“Sheep farming in this country is subsidised by the Basic Payment Scheme and that is being phased out, so it is important we now support farmers to farm more sensitively. In Broughton we will be switching to extensive rare breed cattle, for example, which will continue to produce food – it’s all about pragmatic rewilding and it can have huge benefits across the country.”

Last year, National Geographic named Broughton Sanctuary as of the 30 'most exciting places to visit in the world'  in 2024, describing it as one of the UK's leading rewilding projects.