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Fish, farms and water pollution

Friday 1 October 2010

Our countryside commentator John Sheard welcomes a new scientific drive to finally tackle water pollution more than 250 years after the Industrial Revolution began to poison our rivers, streams and lakes

SOME 20 year ago, before the National Rivers Authority was scrapped by New Labour, I covered a court case in Airedale when a farmer was accused of poisoning the local beck, killing off hundreds of fish. It produced one of the most terrifying statistics about the countryside I had ever heard.

The prosecutor, a large, jovial lady who was to go on to take dozens of offenders to court, discussed the dangers of silage clamps, those relatively modern innovations which have largely replaced haymaking as a method of preserving winter feed for livestock.

Rivers: jewel in the rural crown

The process causes the grass to ferment, which turns the grass into digestible food for cattle and sheep but at the same time gives off some noxious by-products like nitric acid and ammonia. And that’s when the lady prosecutor produced her killer fact.

“A 500 acre farm making silage,” she said, “can potentially produce as much damaging pollution as a town the size of Harrogate.”

This, I remember, drew an audible gasp from the courtroom for Harrogate (population 71,000) is no village and I suppose, like me, people wondered just how many 500 acres farms there were in Yorkshire, never mind the whole of the UK. If all their silage clamps leaked, as this one had, every river and stream in nation would be devastated.

This was a revelation for me on a personal level as a life long fly fishermen. For this was about the time that pristine rivers I had fished for years, streams with crystal clear waters, rampant weed growth, and shiny gravel or stone-lined beds, were changing.

In particular, wading in such streams had become more and more difficult because instead of clean gravel, the beds were covered with a nasty green-brown slime which was a slippery as a winter pavement. And there were undoubtedly fewer and fewer trout about.

This slime is caused by a growth in algae which “blooms” when the river has become over-rich with nutrients. As much as I dislike saying this because the work farmers do in conserving out countryside is priceless, that over richness comes from fertilisers – chemical and organic – leaching out of the fields into the water courses. And, sadly, it has continued this nation’s habit of polluting its rivers than began in the Industrial Revolution getting on for 300 years ago;

It is like an over-enthusiastic gardener piling the muck and the chemical feeds onto his patch and then being disappointed by the poor crops which follow. This happens because the land becomes sour and the plants cannot take up-locked in nutrients.

Winter liming can help this, on farms as well as in the garden, but farmers rarely lime their fields these days, ever since liming grants were scrapped decades ago. Also scrapped, back in Maggie Thatcher’s day, was the Milk Marketing Board, which has driven thousands of small dairy farmers out of the business.

Only dairy farms with large herds can survive today – and that is a tight-rope living anyway. But I know of one farm which used to milk about 40 cows and now has several hundred, fed on bought-in fodder. All their slurry goes onto a relativity small farm which happens to be dissected by a beck that runs into one of my favourite trout rivers.

Now, as I said earlier, this situation has been known about for at least 20 years but little has been done. Then the bureaucrats in Brussels started to impose rules on nitrate use of farms without a) doing much research into the problem and b) without consulting the farmers.

They have been crying out for our protection since the poisonings of the Industrial Revolution

These are the same pen-pushers who make our fishermen throw back perfectly good fish into the North Sea because they are not the correct species on some list drawn up on some other pen-pusher’s desk. And faced with similar draconian measures over effluent run-off, many farmers reacted with truculence.

Well, the good news is that the new Defra administration here in the UK this week launched a proper scientific enquiry into the causes and effects of water pollution from farms (see News). And the really good bit is that, this time, the farmers are taking part because, let’s face it, their input is vital.

The survey will cover, amongst other river systems, the Kent valley in Cumbria, a river I know well, famous for its big brown trout, sea trout and salmon. GPS satellite location systems will; be used to detect where the pollution comes from and where it goes.

Says Jim Paice, Minister of State for Agriculture and Food: “This large-scale project will test how farmers can reduce their environmental footprint while continuing to farm profitably and productively.

“Most rivers are at risk from agricultural pollution and one-in-five currently do not reach the required quality standards, so this hugely important research will help farmers make the right decisions.”

These will no doubt some grumpy farmers who will still object to what they will see as yet more state interference. But the more enlightened ones – many of whom either fish or own the fishing rights on the rivers and streams which run through their lands – will understand that this is a problem that has been getting worse for at least two decades.

England’s rivers are the jewels in the crown of our landscape, bringers of solace to jaundiced urban brows; priceless corridors for wildlife; providers of leisure and sport to anglers, canoeists and the millions of ramblers who tread their banks. They have been crying out for our protection since the poisonings of the Industrial Revolution. After almost three centuries, perhaps this is our chance to get it right.

Feedback received on this subject:

I agree this is the tip of a very ugly iceburge. I give lectures on pollution prevention and regulation - evey time I speak I find that less than 5% of the audiance are aware that all businesses have obligatons and the Pollutor Principle that applied to BP also applies across Europe and this includes polltion from Firewater - the runnnoff from fire fighting that is the responsibility of the site owner not the fire brigade.

Please can sombeody generate awareness about the fact that anti-pollution laws apply to all sectros of business! The EA admit that 75% of major incidents come from non-oil companies so why the ignorance?

Brian M Back Bishop's Stortford

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