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UK river ‘dying’ after farmers lobbied government to water down protections

From Open Democracy

National Farmers’ Union boasted about months of lobbying to weaken enforcement of environmental regulation

Billy Stockwell
13 July 2023

Campaigners say the River Wye is heading for ecological collapse.   wyevalleyphotography

One of Britain’s most well-loved rivers has been pushed towards “complete ecological collapse” after farming unions successfully lobbied the government to water down key environmental legislation, openDemocracy can reveal.

Natural England recently downgraded the status of the River Wye, a designated Special Area of Conservation due to a decline of key species.

The decline is partly due to large quantities of manure being washed into the river from neighbouring farmland – with campaigners warning that environmental laws to limit the waste are not being enforced.

Internal Environment Agency documents seen by openDemocracy show that a loophole – introduced after lobbying by the National Farmers’ Union (NFU) – means farmers in breach of the rules will “not usually” face any action, with some not even being informed of their rule-breaking.

Environmental charity River Action UK says the loophole effectively allows farmers to spread excess manure, which then washes into rivers.

Phosphates and nitrates, two nutrients found in manure, can lead to low oxygen levels and toxic algal blooms that can kill wild and domestic animals. In fact, phosphate levels are being exceeded at more than 30 locations throughout the River Wye’s catchment area.

‘Months of lobbying’

In 2018, legislation was introduced in England, called the ‘Farming Rules for Water’, which sought to reduce water pollution from agricultural sources. It has since been the subject of at least two meetings between the NFU and officials from the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (DEFRA).

The first, in August 2021, saw the NFU meet with Lord Richard Benyon, the then parliamentary under-secretary for Defra, to discuss the legislation.

Four months later, the NFU attended another meeting – this time with the then DEFRA minister Victoria Prentis, along with officials from the Environment Agency (EA), the British Egg Industry Council and the British Poultry Council.

According to written evidence submitted to Parliament’s environment select committee by the NFU, the meeting with Prentis included a decision that an Environment Agency team tasked with implementing the legislation would have their terms of reference “rewritten” to “reflect our dialogue”.

The NFU’s evidence goes on to call for DEFRA to intervene, after accusing the Environment Agency of refusing to listen to industry concerns about the legislation. The group claimed that the current interpretation of the legislation was “completely at odds with decades of good agricultural practice in the UK”.

“The impetus is now on DEFRA to intervene and find an interpretation [of the legislation] that works for all parties. Thankfully, we have received assurances to this effect from ministers in recent weeks.”

Three months later, in March 2022, DEFRA issued statutory guidance to the Environment Agency that created a loophole in the legislation. In a blog post on its website, the NFU admitted that this change had followed “months of NFU lobbying and input”.

The British Egg Industry Council had also submitted written evidence in December 2021. It said that cleaner water is “incredibly important” and something it is actively working towards, but that the legislation was introduced too quickly.

The new statutory guidance says: “Where a Land Manger has acted in accordance with the Statutory Guidance, we will not inform them that they are non-compliant with the FRfW (Farming Rules for Water).”

It also allows manure to be spread in direct contradiction with the Farming Rules for Water, as long as all “reasonable precautions” are taken to reduce pollution, or in circumstances when reducing manure use is not “reasonably practicable”.

‘Close to ecological collapse’

The internal Environment Agency document seen by openDemocracy, dated 28 June 2022, is titled ‘Supplementary Information following Statutory Guidance from Government’. It seeks to clarify the EA’s stance following DEFRA’s intervention. The document says that although regulations “have not changed”, enforcement action will not usually be taken provided farmers can demonstrate that they are operating in accordance with guidance, “even if they are not compliant” with the key part of the regulation.

The loophole has created an environment where farmers spread manure even when it is not necessary to do so, according to Ricardo Gama, a solicitor at the law firm Leigh Day.

“That might be circumstances where the farmer is a poultry farmer and has produced loads of manure but doesn’t have anything else to do with it,” Gama says.

Leigh Day is taking legal action against the Environment Agency on behalf of the River Action UK, claiming that the agency is failing to enforce the rules as they were intended. The environment agency declined to comment on the legal action.

Since 2018, only one landowner has been successfully prosecuted under the Farming Rules for Water, although the Environment Agency says a number of investigations remain ongoing.

Charles Watson, founder and chairman of River Action UK, told openDemocracy that the legal loophole “is why the soils are now overloaded several times above and beyond what they can take”.

“It is cause and effect, black and white. The river has basically turned into a green pea soup. It smells and what used to be beautiful clean gravel on the riverbed is now covered with green slime. The river is now very close to complete ecological collapse.”

A recent study by the University of Lancaster found that an excess load of 2,000 tonnes of phosphorus is being added to the river catchment area each year, which is being “driven by the large amounts of livestock manure produced in the catchment”.

NFU deputy president Tom Bradshaw said: “The reasons for water pollution are often complex. Each river catchment is different, with different activities across different catchments.

“Farmers are working hard, through a range of voluntary measures, to prevent valuable nutrients and soil from contributing to water pollution. We can and want to do more and are working with government, local authorities and regulatory bodies to find solutions to address farming’s impact, so that we can better maintain and protect the health of our rivers.

“With a growing population, there is a clear need for sustainable, affordable and environmentally friendly food. We will continue to work closely with partners and stakeholders across all sectors so that collectively we can drive improvements that benefit water quality in our rivers.”

An Environment Agency spokesperson said: “The River Wye is a beautiful and important part of our landscape, our resources and community wellbeing. That is why we are working through the Nutrient Management Board to find solutions to tackle phosphate levels, as well as stepping up our farm visits to improve compliance and reduce pollution.

“Moreover, the Environment Secretary recently held a roundtable with the Environment Agency, Natural England, local farmers, environment groups and others to discuss ongoing and future actions to restore the River Wye.”

The spokesperson added: “The Farming Rules for Water are one of a number of regulations we use as part of our advice-led regulatory approach with farmers, to protect water quality and nature. If we find pollution or significant risk of pollution occurring we will not hesitate to take further action – evidenced by the enforcement action being taken against 140 farms this financial year.”

The British Egg Industry Council and the British Poultry Council did not respond to a request for comment.

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