Farmers in 36 water catchments around England could find themselves slapped with stringent legislation following a review of water quality and agricultural practices.
The review, which is being carried out by the Environment Agency (EA) and Natural England (NE), is the result of legal proceedings brought against the government in 2015 in which WWF-UK and the Angling Trust argued it had not done enough to reach environmental targets.
“As a result… we must now review if current regulation and practices will lead to the improvements in water quality required,” the two agencies said in a joint letter to farmers in the Hampshire Avon catchment.
If current measures will not achieve the objectives within a reasonable timeframe, Defra secretary Michael Gove could introduce water protection zones (WPZ), prohibiting certain activities and enforcing additional measures, said the letter.
“This includes legal powers to stop or limit any agricultural practices or remove land from agriculture.”
The EA and NE are consulting with stakeholders – including farmers – and will submit their recommendations to Defra after extensive research in each catchment.
“To avoid the introduction of strict legislation, we need farmers to manage slurry, manure, soil and inorganic fertilisers more efficiently,” says the letter.
In Poole Harbour, where excess nutrients are damaging wildlife food sources, the EA has modelled different scenarios to meet a target 30% reduction in nitrates a year from agriculture and the water industry.
Scenarios include using cover crops, reducing cultivation and creating wetland areas, explains senior technical specialist Giles Bryan.
“Farmers need to be doing nearly everything that’s feasible: They will need to be among the most nutrient-efficient farmers in the country to meet the objectives.”
The EA says it has had extremely positive engagement with farmers, who have in turn worked to find their own solutions.
The answer could be a “cap and trade” initiative, whereby farmers who exceed nutrient reduction targets could sell permits, while those who need more flexibility could buy them in.
“Farmers have already been doing a lot of work around nutrient reduction,” explains Paul Cottington, environment and land use adviser at NFU South West.
“The next step is to pilot the scheme and get the tools required to make it work.”