Draining the land

In this blog post I'm taking a look back at my visit to a couple of land drainage projects I went to see in Lincolnshire, where I saw a number of specially modified JCB excavators.

The devastating floods that took place over the Christmas and New year period has certainly opened a debate about the importance of river maintenance and land drainage in the UK, which in many areas of the country has simply been overlooked and in many cases maintenance has been abandoned due to the cost of such work. It’s reassuring to know then that in many locations local authority run Internal Drainage Boards (IDB’s) which are, not for profit organizations, are doing sterling work managing flood risk and land drainage in areas of special need across England and Wales.

At the moment there are 111 IDB’s in England covering some 1.2 million hectares (9.7% of the total land area of the country). These authorities play a key role in reducing flood risk to over 600,000 people and nearly 900,000 properties. They operate and maintain over 500 pumping stations, 22,000 km of watercourse, 175 automatic weed screen cleaners and numerous sluices and weirs.


Most IDB’s operate in broad open areas of lowland such as the Fens, Somerset Levels and the Humberside Levels but are geographically concentrated in Cambridgeshire, Kent, Norfolk, Nottinghamshire, Somerset, Yorkshire and Lincolnshire which seems to be a particular hotspot for land drainage activity and is where the Digger Man Blog caught up with two IDB’s who run specially adapted JCB excavators.

Trent Valley IDB area of work covers low lying land from the west of Gainsborough, straddling the River Trent, down to the south of Nottingham, covering an area of some 44,093ha. This involves maintaining 778km’s of watercourse and the operation of 18 pumping stations.


Trent Valley’s excavator of choice these days is the JCB JS160LC which features the Stage 3B Tier 4i emissions compliant JCB Eco Max engine which offers a power output rating of 125hp. But this machine which sits on 700mm track shoes is not just any JS160LC and features a number of unique modifications. Sharp eyed readers will instantly recognise the sliding boom arrangement which bears a striking resemblance to the old Powerslide boom that JCB used to fit to some models in their old 800 series excavators. Although called Powerslide in those days, there was not actually any power in the operation of that old design at all, the operator had to release a hydraulic clamp by pulling a lever in the cab and then adjusted the boom position by pushing or pulling on the boom section using the dipper arm, the clamp was then reapplied to lock the boom section into position.


These current modifications are undertaken by Doncaster based engineering firm H. Mell & Sons Ltd and feature an hydraulically powered sliding boom, with 1.5m of slide travel, which when fully extended offers the operator a 9.1 metre reach from pin to slew centre. The machine which was supplied by local dealer TC Harrison JCB also features an additional fuel tank which slots in between the rear of the engine bay and the original counterweight and spans across the entire width of the machine, this in-turn acts as an additional counterweight and enables the machine to work longer hours between refuelling, often a blessing, (but sometimes a curse) when working in remote locations and often a long way from the main refuelling tank. Other additions include, double acting high and low flow auxiliary lines, Panolin biodegradable oil and Prolec height and lift watch system.


Perhaps surprisingly in this day and age the machine uses the old direct fit pin system for its buckets and attachments, as such with no quick hitch, attachment changing is an all manual affair requiring the pins to be knocked out with a sledge hammer in the “old school” style, when asked why they still use this set up I was told that from their point of view quick hitches don’t allow them to achieve the bucket angles they require in their line of work, this came as a surprise to me to be honest, but each to their own I guess.


On arrival at the jobsite operator Andy Smith was just about to set off with his tree shears mounted on the machine to trim up some overhanging branches, but there was just time to find out a bit more about him and his experience in this line of work.

Andy has been operating machines for in excess of 35 years and has virtually spent all that time with the land drainage board, talking about his work Andy said, “Well it’s a very rewarding job as it feels like you are being part of the community. It all started for me when I took on the drive on a JCB 3, after that I moved on to a Ruston Bucyrus RH 150 which at the time was a locally produced machine. I then moved onto a JCB 806 “river rig” machine and then I received a JCB 814 Super which I felt was the best digger they ever made!”

RH 150

Photo: An example of a Ruston Bucyrus RH 150 from the Digger Man Blog Archives.

Andy continued, “When JCB stopped making the 814’s we had to move away from the brand and I was put in charge of a Case 888B, that machine was based on the old Poclain machines, it was a bit of a brute, but in all fairness it was a great digger. We then returned to JCB with the JS160 model of which this one is my second machine. They are a good middle of the road sized excavator for our type of work, but the sliding boom is a crucial feature for us offering flexibility of range when working on big or little dykes”.


We then travelled on to Pinchbeck, near Spalding, where The Black Sluice Internal Drainage Board were engaged on a project to clean out and re-shape existing dykes and the piping of some areas including the formation of new headwalls.

The Black Sluice IDB has been running in its current form since 1935, but incredibly its history can be traced as far back as 1635, when the then Earl of Lindsey made the first attempt to drain the “Black Sluice” area. The Earl of Lindsey and others contracted with the Lincolnshire Commissioners of Sewers to carry out a main drainage scheme for the reclamation of 36,000 acres of land in the parishes of Holland and Kesteven in what is now known as the Black Sluice area and was referred to as the “Lindsey Level”.

DSC_0086 Black Sluice job

Today the Board maintains around 500 miles of watercourses and operates 34 pumping stations within its area. Over the years Black Sluice has run a variety of excavators from such famous British names as Priestman and Ruston Bucyrus but today the fleet is dominated by machines from another famous British brand JCB which like the previous example in this article, have been supplied by local dealer TC Harrison JCB and modified to meet their specific requirements.

Black Sluice’s newest machine is a JS130LC operated by Pat Banham a highly experienced operator who has been in the game for over 31 years, 14 years of which were with his own machine including 10 of them on hire to Black Sluice. He has worked direct for Black Sluice for the past 4 years working on drainage, reed cutting and construction works.


This machine and another 3 on the fleet including another JS130, JS145 and a JS160 all feature mono booms but with retro fitted extending dipper modifications which were manufactured by Buckinghamshire based Ulrich Attachments Ltd. This set up gives the JS130 the capability to extend the dipper reach from 3 metres to 4.5 metres making it an ideal and flexible solution for this kind of application. There is no additional counterweight fitted but according to Pat, the machine remains very stable in most positions as long as you are sensible in how you operate the machine, it’s all about striking a compromise at the end of the day but the benefits are clear to see. The fleet also includes a JS220LC which is fitted with a full spec long reach boom/dipper combination of some 15 metres reach.


This JS130LC also features Panolin biodegradable oil, rear view camera, Prolec Height and SLI monitoring and Wirewatch. The machine is also set up for GPS satellite navigation, which means the machine can be tracked by the team back at base to its location often out in the remotest of areas if there is ever any problems with the job or the machine.

Talking about his work and the machine Pat said, “We cover 500 miles of drain which gets cut with a reed basket in the summer months, we usually start cutting in July and that operation goes through till December. Ditching, construction and improvement works then follows from January through to July when it all starts again”.


“This machine is proving to be excellent for the job, the bucket I have on is a light reed bucket with a special profile which is perfect for our work especially the dyke forming and shaping operations. The engine has been very reliable and I’ve not had any problems with it whatsoever. We used to have machines with double fuel tanks but on this one we have returned to single tanks, the reasoning behind that is that the machines are often left in remote locations overnight and diesel theft can be a problem so in many ways it makes sense just to have the one tank, in all fairness I can do 3 days of full on reed cutting with this machine on one tank of fuel which is very good in my book”.

On the older JCB JS160LC was another long standing and well known plant operator in the area Pete Bedford who had first got into machine operating at the tender age of 17 and who is due to retire in June this year taking all those valuable years of experience with him when he goes.


Pete briefly told us about his many years in the game during which time he had operated Priestman, Hymac, Atlas and JCB machines to name a few.

We would like to thank Robert Wilson, Karl Charlton and the team at TC. Harrison JCB for their help in making these site visits possible.

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