As farming gets to grips with the Water Framework Directive the best way to tackle diffuse pollution – contamination by soil, nutrients and pesticides – will be through partnership.

That was the firm message from last week’s FWAG conference on Catchment Sensitive Farming.

Speakers acknowledged the vital role of advisers.

But several stressed the need to build on experience gained and warned against creating another tier of bureaucracy.

The directive, said to be the most comprehensive legislation ever on water, became UK law in 2003 and affects all industries.

Plans – in the shape of catchment sensitive farming to address key environmental issues – must be in place by 2009 and their targets achieved by 2015.

Noting that only 10% of farmers understood the term “diffuse pollution” and what causes it, the Environment Agency’s Barbara Young warned that the time left for addressing WFD demands was short. “2015 sounds a long way away, but it isn’t.”

Plans must be drafted by 2008.

“They are all heavily dependent on partnership, and we need to make sure they are a genuine reflection of a developing consensus.

It’s a pretty tight timetable and we have got to focus on real priorities.”

Fundamental to the success of the programme was advice, in which organisations like LEAF, FWAG and Natural England would all have a role to play.

“We owe it to farmers to all sing from the same hymn sheet.”

To meet the country’s WFD obligations and to help farmers respond correctly, a CSF programme would be introduced from next April, said DEFRA’s Patrice Mongelard.

Details of the initiative, which will include catchment officers offering one-to-one advice, are expected before the end of the year.

“We want to help farm businesses to adapt and we have a budget for capital grants,” said Mr Mongelard.

Advisers already working in the catchments should make themselves known to DEFRA, he urged.

“We want to build on what’s there.”

FWAG director Michael Woodhouse anticipated that there would be 115 named catchments, with 30 designated priority targets.

Proof that co-operation can succeed in tackling wide scale environmental problems came from Somerset FWAG’s Ben Thorne.

Severe flooding in the area in 1997 and again in the winter of 1999/2000 led to the formation of the River Parrett Catchment Project.

By bringing together 28 organisations to find remedies, through better soil management, introducing floodplain woodland, and creating interception ponds, it had proved the value of partnership, he said.

“Yes, we have had some dry winters recently, but when we have had heavy rain the continual problems are no longer occurring. Peer and community pressure is one of the biggest drivers.”

andrew.blake@rbi.co.uk