Agricultural Pollution Update – Nov 2019

Government figures show currently only 14% of rivers are classified as healthy…..

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Government figures show currently only 14% of rivers are classified as healthy and rural areas are impacting 35% of waterbodies (EA, 2015). Evidence from the Riverfly Census has shown the greatest stressors on our rivers are sediment, excess nutrients, pesticides and other toxic chemicals – many of which are derived from agricultural practices through the poor management of soil, the storage/application of livestock slurry/manures and the use of pesticides.

The Environment Agency (EA) admit compliance with the regulatory baseline is low and progress is slow, variable and not secure as farmers react to market factors and incentives that put them under financial pressure. In 2018, the Government finally introduced ‘new’, legally enforceable Farming Rules for Water. The rules require farmers to manage their land to avoid water pollution. They provide a step by step checklist to safeguard water quality by requiring farmers to judge when it is best, for example, to apply fertilisers, where to store manures and how to avoid pollution from soil erosion.

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However, in our evidence to the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (EFRA) Committee’s consultation on the Agriculture Bill, we pointed out that the 2018 Regulations largely mirror earlier Codes of Good Agricultural Practice and Government guidance dating back to the 1980s. They are in essence the same rules repackaged that have failed to limit the impact of agriculture on our rivers or change farmer behaviour on the ground.

Yes, now they are enforceable in law. But being enforceable and actually being enforced are two very different things. That’s why at S&TC we want to see a firm commitment from Government, backed up by action, to enforce these new rules.

However, a recent Freedom of Information request made by S&TC revealed that the EA for 2018/2019 only made 403 farm visits. As there are 106,000 farm businesses, since the 2018 Regulations came into force, only about 0.4% of farms have received a visit. At that rate every farm business will get one visit every 263 years.

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As for breaches of the new rules, the rate of breaches found by the Agency suggests that if all farm businesses all were visited in a single year, we would expect about 4,000 breaches of the 2018 Regulations in the last year alone.

No doubt the EA would suggest these 403 visits were in some way targeted inspections of high risk sites, but it’s also important to bear in mind that visits only occur on one day out of the 365 and actions like spreading slurry on frozen ground or spraying herbicides just before rainfall only takes a day and is likely to be missed.

In short, the EA currently does not have the resources to monitor or enforce the 2018 Regulations effectively and our rivers are paying the price. Until we have an enforcement system where people know they will be caught and action taken if they do the wrong thing, things will not change.

One requirement of the 2018 Regulations is for the Secretary of State to periodically review the provisions contained with the 2018 Regulations. The first report must be published before 2ndApril 2021.

So, we welcome your help to help provide the evidence that the 2018 Regulations on the statute book is not enough.

The EA must have the proper resources to ensure the new rules are implemented and enforced.

And that’s not just S&TC saying that – this was the EFRA Committee of MPs back in 2005:

“Time and again over the course of our enquiries into environmental crime, it has been brought home to us that unless there is a real threat of being detected, the offender will continue to offend.  We cannot stress strongly enough the importance of the threat of detection as a deterrent."

Of course, we need to continue with positive incentives too, and we will continue to lobby for post-Brexit farming regulations which reward farmers for effective environmental protection, but this alone will not achieve healthy watercourses. We need an enforcement and regulation system with teeth.

Reporting with a purpose

S&TC is a national organisation and we use evidence from local case studies to help instigate policy changes that will benefit UK wild fish populations. But, this is just part of the value - we are making all our Riverfly Census findings available so they can be used to inform local management and drive action.

Each individual river report is based on three years of surveying data. Where possible, we have linked up our findings with other existing literature and data. Using the available information we suggest where local fishing and/or conservation groups can focus their management efforts to achieve the best health outcomes for each of the 12 original Census rivers.

Some of our local reports can be found on the slider below. Alternatively, visit the Riverfly Census page and scroll down to the map.