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A crofter cheated drowning twice as he tried to save his cattle, clinging onto trees for his own life as fast and furious floodwater washed him away.
Stuart Underwood from Stronmilchan was one of a number of farmers and crofters in the Dalmally area left broken and counting the cost of extreme flooding after a heavy rain fall burst the River Orchy’s banks.
On two separate occasions after wading into high water to follow the horrific roaring of his distressed cattle, Stuart was knocked off his feet and swept downstream. He is still suffering frightening flashbacks and the headache of worrying over livelihood losses and repairs.
Another farmer lost 60 young sheep worth about £6,000 and thousands of pounds of fencing was flattened by the torrents that swept down the valley this month.
Cows, calves and sheep were carried off by the aggressive water, winter feed bails were ruined and fertiliser on fields washed away after the torrential rain upped water levels overnight on Saturday September 12 and the next day.
The devastation has stirred angry criticism of the power company in charge of the Awe barrage which is being accused of failing to protect the nearby community.
Although the area historically experiences flooding, members of the farming and wider Dalmally community believe the latest extent of the damage and heartache suffered could have been avoided if those responsible for the barrage had acted on the bad weather warning and opened the gates earlier.
Calls are being made for talks about compensation and better management of the barrage in the hope of a promise that lessons will be learned but a spokesperson for SSE Renewables said while it can release water from Loch Awe to keep a safe flow of water downstream it has ‘no control of rivers upstream’ such as the River Orchy.
The catalogue of danger and destruction left by the flood also included trees torn up, chunks of ripped river banking churned out onto fields, five cars and four campervans getting stranded, a footbridge further up the glen at Catnish wrecked, Dalmally golf course vanishing under water, a completely submerged cattle shed and hens hanging on to perches up to their bellies in water.
In desperation, farmers ended up calling police for help to contact SSE and get the barrage open.
Ishbel Livingstone, one of the other affected crofters, described the scene as ‘hell’.
‘There were cattle and calves coming down the river. Miraculously mine managed to get a foothold on land but we had to go out and look for them. I didn’t know if they were going to be alive or dead.’
Her brother Donald McLaren was not so lucky. He lost 60 of his hogs. ‘SSE have all the technology to sit and monitor water levels. They had the bad weather forecast but still they did not open the barrage until the police contacted them. The loch was full and backed up and the River Orchy had nowhere to go.’
NFU Scotland local secretary Euan Warnock said he was amazed more livestock had not been killed in the flood and warned some farmers and crofters’ livelihoods would suffer the consequences for the flood for five or six years to come because of the damage and loss of breeding stock.
‘We still believe there is a direct relevance of the water levels of Loch Awe and control of the barrage with the behaviour of the River Orchy. Our members have told of their frustration at how slow SSE were to open the gates. We need to get hold of the decision makers and the people who make the policy about how and when the gates are opened. We also need to talk about the control of Loch Awe water levels throughout the year and managing the levels of the loch more sensibly.’
John Kerr, chairman of Glenorchy and Innishail Community Council, said its members would also be ‘asking SSE for an explanation to establish all the facts’.
A SSE Renewables spokesperson told The Oban Times: ‘While SSE Renewables is not the responsible authority for flood warnings, we’re very sorry to hear of the circumstances that many residents in the region faced during last weekend’s extreme weather.
‘Our responsibility and duty at all times is to monitor and manage water levels in Loch Awe, especially during periods of extreme weather. During such events we release water from the loch while ensuring we maintain safe flows of water into the river system downstream of Loch Awe. We have no control of rivers upstream of Loch Awe such as the Orchy that flow into the loch.
‘Throughout last weekend’s extreme weather event we worked closely with the responsible authority, the Scottish Environmental Protection Agency (SEPA), to monitor and manage water levels in Loch Awe. As a result, we began opening the Awe Barrage gates around 7am on Sunday morning, in line with procedures, to safely release water from the loch and maintain safe waterflows downstream. We continued safely opening the gates throughout the day as required to help reduce water levels in Loch Awe and until the extreme weather event had passed.’
Anyone with flood management concerns during extreme weather events should contact SEPA’s dedicated floodline on 03459 881188.
Listen to an interview with crofter Stuart Underwood here
Watch The Oban Times video here