Agricultural Pollution – Educate, Encourage, Enforce

"Up to 2016, a staggering 95% of farms did not comply with storage regulations and 49% were polluting the river Axe. Environmental law breaking, albeit mostly through lack of knowledge, on a massive scale."

Paul Knight, Outgoing CEO Salmon & Trout Conservation writes,

S&TC’s Census Report, published in May 2019, provided evidence that the main damage done to our rivers in rural areas was a result of poor land management – especially excess fine sediment and phosphates, and pesticides.  Intensive farming, including livestock, dairy and arable, often on an industrial scale, is the main culprit.

However, farmers provide a significant proportion of our food in the UK and so we have to find a way of protecting our rivers – and the whole environment – while allowing farmers to operate efficiently.   Impossible, you may say. Actually, we don’t believe it is – there are solutions which actually benefit farmers at the same time as stopping soil, pesticides, too much phosphate etc falling into our rivers and damaging wild fish and the water ecology.   

First, though, we need to understand how rivers operate, and why every landowner has to cooperate, otherwise none of this will work.  Put simply, rivers connect headwaters to the sea, and everything in between. This connectivity means that it only takes a few non-compliant farmers to undo all the good work done by their neighbours.  There are plenty of examples – slurry run-off, pesticide and fuel spills, sediment smothering riverbeds – affecting a waterway well downstream of where the pollution actually occurred.

There is a fundamental problem we recently unearthed.  During a meeting with NFU representatives and local farmers in Wiltshire, it became clear that few farmers were aware of the Reduction and Prevention of Agricultural Diffuse Pollution Regulations 2018, designed to protect the environment and under which all farmers should be operating. The EA staffer present described it as the softest regulation launch he had ever known. Education on a massive scale is therefore required to ensure all landowners are aware of their legal responsibilities.

We have left the EU and, shortly, our farmers will be bound by a new agricultural policy to replace Europe’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP).  This means that we have the opportunity to influence government thinking about how farmers can be rewarded for protecting fragile environments such as river corridors, but under a much more effective programme than CAP.  As stated above, all farmers in a catchment have to cooperate, otherwise the plan will fail.  

A classic example of how things could work better in future comes from the recently published Environment Agency (EA) River Axe N2K Catchment Regulatory Project Report 2019.  After years of advice to farmers on Devon’s River Axe, and the very occasional farm inspection, the river was in a terrible ecological state, as confirmed by S&TC’s Axe Riverfly Census data.  Up to 2016, a staggering 95% of farms did not comply with storage regulations and 49% were polluting the river Axe. Environmental law breaking, albeit mostly through lack of knowledge, on a massive scale.

The EA then intervened and, with £120,000 of resource, carried out 86 farm audits (well above national average) and encouraged farmers to invest in 33 slurry stores, 3 silage clamps, 10 fuel stores and undertake 21 infrastructure repairs – all costing nearly £4m, so not a bad return on a £120K enforcement budget.  

However, an important message from the Axe Report is that tough regulation was threatened but was not required, at least up until the Report publication date, although time will tell as to whether behavioural change will result in long-term adherence to regulations.  Agricultural regulation had been flouted for many years because of a lack of regulation – no political commitment coupled to a lack of funding – but when the EA cracked down with some meaningful resources behind them, improvements were swift and, as a result, we hope the river will begin improving over the coming years.  The Axe example clearly shows that a combination of advice and financial incentives, supported by the threat of tough regulation, was sufficient to encourage farmers to act in the short term, but S&TC remains adamant that more resources are required for monitoring and enforcement so that land managers know they will get caught if they have the urge again to cut corners.  We completely support the continuation of subsidies for farmers, but we must have public benefit in return, rather than the old system of cross compliance under CAP, which was never properly monitored and, as a result, completely failed to protect our rivers. 

The question is, of course, will this action be sufficient to result in a lasting improvement to the river? S&TC will be re-running its Riverfly census next year to look for improvements, but we believe that the EA will need resources to make visits over the long-term to ensure improvements in water quality endure

From the evidence of our Riverfly Census, S&TC believes that a new government agricultural policy can encourage farmers to utilise methods which benefit them as well as protect the environment.  For instance, we believe that, if farmers were incentivised to embrace good soil management such as zero tillage (where appropriate), there would be benefits all round - farmers would keep their natural resource in place (soil); a more natural soil function would be encouraged (earthworms rather than ploughs), lower inputs in terms of fuel and size of equipment required and, medium-long term, increased yields – so, a bottom line benefit for farmers and better protection for rivers from sediment, chemicals and phosphate seepage.  A classic win/win scenario.

So, S&TC’s message to government is that the River Axe example gives a view of how things might happen in the future.  It needs government commitment to roll out across the country, and the Treasury to allow Defra to fund the new agricultural policy properly to allow long-term changes in the EA farm inspection regime, but if that happens, our rivers, wild fish and water ecology could receive a massive boost and we could start to reverse the degradation of the past decades – and farmers will benefit too.

As the Axe Report states,

"This evaluation clearly demonstrates the power of advice (to farmers), backed up by regulation and supported by financial incentives to create positive benefits for water quality. Neither advice, incentives nor regulation delivered in isolation of the others will generate the desired environmental improvements in water quality."

Reporting with a purpose

S&TC are 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 conservation groups can focus their management efforts to achieve the best health outcomes for each of the rivers.