The storms that hit Britain between Christmas and New Year, flooding 16,000 homes, displacing more than 3,000 families and causing damage for an estimated £1.3 billion, have been a stark reminder of the danger of rising waters.
With more than 150 warnings still in place in the UK, now is the time to make sure you have everything in place to minimise the impact of flooding and protect the lives of both your family and your horses.
According to charity The National Flood Forum, some 5.2 million people in England and Wales are deemed to be at risk of flooding, but less than 40% of those facing a serious risk are aware of it. So the first step towards flood protection is to find out whether your home is potentially in danger (and, yes, it can be at risk even if you live far away from the sea or a river).
The Environment Agency’s website has a dedicated map that shows areas of England and Wales that prone to flooding, SEPA has a similar one for Scotland and the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development has one for Northern Ireland. For a more detailed assessment that’s specific to your house, you can ask a surveyor to carry out a property-level flood risk survey.
Once you have a clearer picture of what you face, you can begin getting ready. Start by assessing your land and your buildings.
Nicki Whittaker, Equine and High Value Home specialist at insurers NFU Mutual, suggest that you look for any higher ground, above flood levels, where you could move your horse for safety. If it is on your land, make sure it is equipped with a field shelter, enough feed and water to last for a few days and a first-aid kit.
If there’s no higher ground on your land, try and find a high place close to you and gain permission to use it for your horses ahead of a flood. Is there a friendly farmer with suitable land that may take your horse in? Ask around and make arrangements.
You’ll also need to come up with a sound evacuation plan. “Find a safe route and consider transport if you need to travel off site,” says Whittaker. “It is unsafe to lead your horse or drive a vehicle through flood water, so make sure that you plan your route accordingly. Ensure additional gates are fitted and attach your contact details on field gates if your field is at risk of flooding.
“If you have a large number of horses,” she continues, “anticipate the course floodwaters might take and establish which horses you will move first. Start moving animals in advance of any danger. Even if the evacuation turns out to be unnecessary, at least you will have practised for the future.”
Your evacuation plan (which should extend to humans as well as horses) should become the cornerstone of a broader flood plan that you need to devise if you live in an area at risk. “While you can’t control the floods, having a flood plan will mean you’re more in control of your situation,” says Whittaker.
Your plan should set out the procedure to follow when a flood is imminent such as, for example, unplugging all electrical equipment, putting up flood boards and sandbags to prevent water coming in, and turning off utility mains—if you don’t know where they are, ask your supplier, advises Whittaker, who recommends marking taps or switches with stickers to make them easier to find.
You should also identify all your valuable possessions and move them to the top floor of your house (or at least on a high-mounted shelf). These should include photo albums, family videos and mementoes, as well as jewellery, priceless furniture or expensive electronics. Important documents such as passports, birth certificates and insurance papers should be placed in watertight containers.
“Think about what you can move now, don’t wait for a flood,” says Whittaker.
Another key element of your flood plan is preparing emergency supply packs for both you and your horse in case you need to evacuate swiftly.
Whittaker suggests packing warm, waterproof clothes, blankets, a mobile phone, a first aid kit, prescription medicines, bottled water, non-perishable food (including baby food and care products, if you have a small child), a wind-up or battery radio and torch (with spare batteries), copies of your insurance documents and any useful contact numbers—from those of friends and family to those of local emergency services, your utility suppliers, the vet, your GP, your bank manager and your insurance company.
In your horse’s flood kit, Whittaker goes on, you should put “a spare head collar and lead rope (attach contact details to the head collar) plus your horse’s passport and first aid kit, any medication he needs, wire cutters (in case you can’t leave the field through a gate) and a warm waterproof rug.”
Also store as much feed and water as possible above flood level, enough to last until clean water and food can be delivered.
It goes without saying that you should also have your insurance cover in order in case the worst hits. Whittaker recommends that you check the terms of your cover: make sure that it includes your buildings and contents and that the amount insured is sufficient — it’s easy to underestimate the value of your contents or the cost of rebuilding your property.
“Many insurers,” she adds, “will provide alternative accommodation for you and your family if your home is flooded but you should also verify if your policy covers emergency stabling, kennels or cattery for your animals while you are unable to live at home.”
Don’t forget that contaminated floodwater teems with germs, creating the perfect condition for your horse to pick up a nasty disease. If you live in a high-risk area, you should talk to your vet about suitable health strategies, including, where applicable, vaccination (tetanus being high on the list of flood related conditions).
And be sure to share all the details of your flood plan with neighbours and friends because you may not be at home when disaster strikes.
Of course, you will also want to flood-proof your home and yard as much as possible. At the very least, you should stock up on flood barriers, such as flood boards, gel sacks and toilet seat seals, plus handy products such as disinfectant, torches, brushes, fans, generators and pumps — but there’s much more that can be done.
A specialist flood surveyor will be able to advise you on the measures that work best for your house and yard, which can vary depending when and how they were built and on the local soil. As a guideline, though, you should both build up your flood resistance and make your house more resilient in case water does get in.
To boost your property’s defences, the Environment Agency and the Association of British Insurers suggest you look at installing flood-resistant doors and window frames, choosing air bricks with movable covers, filling in any cracks in your walls, sealing your floors and fitting a pump and sump system to drain water from below floor level.
Proper drainage is crucial to keep you safe: check that your pipes are clear, well maintained and capable of coping with huge volumes of water, and fit them with non-return valves, which allow water to flow only in one direction, to reduce the risk of sewage backing up into your home and stables. You also need to seal pipe and cable access points, including, for example, the washing machine in your rug room.
Realistically, though, you won’t be able to keep all floodwater out—and if it rises beyond one metre, you won’t want to, because the weight of that much water pressing against your property could make it collapse.
In this case, flood resilience measure can help you limit the damage. These include placing all electricals, boilers and service meters, both in the house and the yard, at least 1 1/2 metres above the ground, changing wall insulation from mineral to closed cell, treating wood to help it withstand water and preferring water-resistant materials wherever possible — for example, lime-based plaster or horizontal plasterboard to gypsum, concrete to timber, or tiles to carpets.
If your home does get flooded, try and stay safe and in control. “Horses will become stressed and anxious during a flood,” Whittaker says. “Wear a hat and gloves and if you have many horses, try to move them together as this helps to keep them calm. Do not put yourself at risk to rescue a horse—contact the emergency services or the RSPCA who may be able to help.”
And remember that, regardless of where you live and whether a flood alert has been issued or not, when it rains heavily, you should check on your horse regularly to keep him safe.