NFU defends dairy sector amid criticism on river pollution

The NFU has defended the livestock and dairy farming industry in the wake of fresh criticism over its record on river pollution incidents.

The latest figures from the Environment Agency (EA) reveal livestock farms in England were responsible for 300 incidents of river pollution in the 2021-22 financial year, of which 20 were “significant” or “major”.

However, only six farms were prosecuted and in many cases the EA sent out warning letters instead.

See also: Editor’s view: Grab slurry grant funding before its gone

EA inspectors carried out 703 inspections on dairy farms in the 2021-22 financial year, although the actual figure is likely to be higher as some farms are mixed, such as arable and dairy, and this information was not captured.

The figures show that the dairy sector was the biggest offender, with around half of incidents occurring on dairy farms.

There were 20 “serious” water/river pollution incidents linked to dairy farms in England during this period.

Slurry concerns

The freshwater fish conservation group Wildfish said it was concerned about the threat that slurry spreading poses to rivers.

Its chief executive Nick Measham said: “Farmers are certainly not alone. Sewage pollution is a major problem. But at the root of this all is an under-funded Environment Agency not carrying out its job and the inspections that are needed.

“We need more robust sanctions. It is not just fining and arresting people. It is about having the inspection regime that points out farms that are not working within the rules and guidelines and working with them to correct these problems. The EA has got a bit more money, but it is still not enough.”

The NFU said livestock farmers had “made great strides” in recent years in reducing key agricultural emissions.

The number of serious river pollution incidents recorded had fallen from 77 in 2018, to 41 in 2019 and to 20 in the 2021-22 financial year.

Much of this progress was down to industry-led voluntary initiatives that had driven improvements that benefit the water environment, the union said.

Advice-led approach

NFU deputy president Tom Bradshaw said: “Over the past 18 months, the NFU has played an important role bringing together the farming industry, Environment Agency and Defra to agree on rules that enable farm businesses to plan with confidence, and importantly, drive improvements that benefit soil and plant health as well as water quality. We welcome the recent announcement of the slurry infrastructure scheme by Defra. 

“The NFU will continue to work with Defra and the EA through their advice-led approach to infringements, in order to effectively communicate the farming rules for water guidance to its members.”

The EA said it was working “constructively” with farmers to reduce water pollution from agriculture.

Since April 2021, the regulator has carried out 3,785 inspections, issued at least 140 warning letters and required 6,169 improvement actions on farms, of which 2,791 have already been completed.

Take advantages of slurry grants now, farmers told

Farmers in England are being urged to take advantage of government funding to help them invest in slurry storage on farm.

Defra opened applications for its new Slurry Infrastructure Grant on 6 December and it will close on 31 January 2023.

The grant offers dairy, beef and pig farmers in England between £25,000 and £250,000 to invest in future-proofed slurry infrastructure and nutrient management systems.

The aim of the grant is to help reduce water and air pollution risk from slurry.

Jeremy Moody, secretary and adviser at the Central Association of Agricultural Valuers, urged farmers to take advantage of the grant funding now – before it becomes a legal requirement.

“Water legislation is tightening and it’s not going to go away,” he said. “Improving slurry stores to benefit the environment is likely to become a statutory requirement in future, so while the government is offering money to get there, it makes sense to take it.”