Doncaster farmer facing battle with insurers over land contaminated by floods

It may be 11 weeks since Doncaster was devastated by floods – but farmer Steve Gilleard is still living with the consequences.

Tuesday, 21st January 2020, 12:00 pm
Updated Monday, 27th January 2020, 10:18 am

On November 8 last year, Steve had headed into Fishlake to try to help those who had been devasted by the waters which had overwhelmed the village after the Don burst its banks.

He was there until 2am offering what assistance he could to those who were seeing their homes under water. He was in awe of the amount of water coming into the village and the speed with which it arrived.

When he arrived home at the farm off Sour Lane that his family has run for nearly 40 years, on the outskirts of the village, it was still dry.

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Fishlake farmer Steve Gilleard with his fuel contaminated land following recent flooding
Fishlake farmer Steve Gilleard with his fuel contaminated land following recent flooding

He told partner Stephanie Hanks that he did not think the water would reach them at Thorninghurst Farm. But he didn’t sleep well that night.

By the morning, the waters were getting close.

At 5am, he moved his sheep to a field further away from the river and the village. By the time he had moved them, the water was half way up the field. Now he was starting to get worried, and the couple decided to move their 21-month old daughter to relatives away from the floods.

They had had no warning from the Environment Agency over the risk of flooding.

Thorninghurst Farm during the Doncaster floods in November 2019

But by the middle of the afternoon, the couple became concerned for their rare pedigree limousin cattle, bred for their breeding stock. With water lapping at the foot of the cattleshed, they were moved to a higher level in the structure. By the time the last of them was being herded to safety, the water was up to the animals bellies.

Today the waters have subsided.

But the couple are now facing the stress of dealing with the aftermath of a disaster which they say has left their land contaminated.

The couple say fields have been left affected by kerosene which was washed up from the village. Fuel tanks used for heating homes had been lifted by the flood waters, causing their contents to spill out into the water. But the insurance firm, NFU Mutual has disputed this, leaving them battling to convince the insurer of the damage they believe has been caused to the land.

Fishlake farmer Steve Gillatt with his fuel contaminated land following recent flooding

On top of this, they are now having to pay for a whole range of innoculations for their pedigree cattle, because of the possibility that the flood water brought potentially deadly cattle bugs.

Stephanie said: “When the flood was here it was hard. But it has actually been a lot harder since the water has gone away, trying to sort out the problems it brought.”

Steve added: “Because of what happened, we can never run the farm normally again, because of the vaccines – they will have to be done indefinitely. That involves cost and time. Pedigree cattle for breeding have to have a high health status, and 75 per cent of our cattle are pedigree and sold for breeding.

“It is clear to see there is contamination to the land – it has killed grass.

Fishlake farmer Steve Gillatt with his fuel contaminated land following recent flooding

“We’ve invested a lot in these bloodlines, and we can’t turn them out there. I can’t replace them.

“It is the emotional and ongoing impact that is difficult. We have lost £9,000 worth of cattle feed because of contamination. The cost of clean up and damage will be six figures.

“We need a firm to come and sort out the contamination. Until that is sorted we can’t get a crop off it or graze there.

“While I’m dealing with things like this, I haven’t got that time to do what I should be doing around the farm. Sometimes it feels like we’re no further on than we were on day one.”

But the couple are determined not to be beaten by the floods and have pledged to get back up and running.

The Environment Agency says its staff have spoken to and visited Mr Gilleard on a number of occasions since the November floods about the situation at his farm.

“We have provided advice and guidance to him," it said in a statement. “While we realise this is a very difficult time for Mr Gilleard, due to it being private land it is an issue between him and his insurer.”

A spokesperson for NFU Mutual, said they took any concern about the safety of livestock and environmental issues extremely seriously and following the devastating flooding in Fishlake, quickly instructed a specialist third party to conduct an independent Environmental Impact Survey on Thorninghurst Farm.”

They said the survey consisted of laboratory testing on samples of both soil and standing water collected from various locations across the flooded field area indicated at the farm, and their results found no evidence of external contaminates, including oil or kerosene, to the flooded field area and no risk to the health of the cattle.

They added: “Our customer has been advised to allow the standing flood water to naturally dissipate before the cattle are returned to the field in order to ensure that detected elevated levels of naturally-occurring bacteria return to the pre-flood background levels to guarantee the cattle’s safety.

“Following the flooding NFU Mutual has also provided the funds for the cattle’s inoculations and for professional cleaning of the cattle shed, as well as an interim payment to support any immediate loss of income at the time of the flood. To provide further reassurance to our insured regarding the safety of the land we have also offered to conduct a second Environmental Impact Survey.

“As part of the standard claims process, we are awaiting evidence from our customer to support the open claims so that we are able to provide an outcome.”