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Axe falls on dairy sector

Shocking EA report shines light on the real cost of high yield dairy farming in south-west England

A report on south-west England's river Axe states 95% of farms did not comply with storage regulations.
A report on south-west England's river Axe states 95% of farms did not comply with storage regulations.

This first appeared as a News story in the February 2020 issue of Fly Fishing and Fly Tying, and, unfortunately, relates to the catchment involved in the pollution event recorded in website News 5/5/20.

In a no-holds barred internal project report, the Environment Agency (EA) lays bare a catalogue of regulatory breaches by the dairy farming industry, resulting in serious environmental damage to the river Axe catchment across Devon, Somerset and Dorset.

The report, which has been seen by FF&FT News, reveals that during a regulatory clampdown, 95% of farms did not comply with storage regulations and that 49% of farms were polluting the river Axe. “Despite over a decade of advisory visits in the period up to 2016,” it says, “The catchment continued to decline and there were no significant improvements in farming practices.”

The report reveals what many have long suspected, that in the Axe catchment at least the lack of regulatory enforcement by the EA was down to more than lack of resources alone, but: “There has been very little EA regulatory activity within the catchment during the last 15 years following a national steer to allow the voluntary approach to take place.”

The report presents findings from a farm visit campaign carried out by the EA between 2016 and 2019. It was the result of a Judicial Review instigated by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and the Angling Trust (AT) which claimed that the EA was not using its regulatory powers to tackle diffuse pollution and its causes in the river Axe catchment.

The river Axe is a Natura 2000 site, and the lower reaches are also designated as a Special Site of Scientific Interest (SSSI) and Special Area of Conservation (SAC).

The river is in unfavourable condition and declining, due to nutrient enrichment and sediment pollution which has led to habitat loss and loss of fish species, including salmon.

Problems have worsened over recent years due to the intensification of the dairy farming industry, and the associated growing of maize on unsuitable land to increase milk yields and fuel anaerobic digester (AD) plants.

The report describes a vicious circle of herd number growth, maize growing causing soil loss and increased sedimentation, and increased slurry production combined with inadequate storage facilities, with any leaks inevitably finding their way into the river.

The report also makes clear that the Red Tractor label offers no reassurance to customers that the products they are buying are produced in an environmentally sustainable manner. The report states: “The findings of this campaign demonstrate that Red Tractor is not effective at assuring farms are meeting environmental regulations.”

The farming sector is now the biggest cause of Category 1 and 2 pollution incidents of any industrial sector, including the water companies.

Regulations governing the storage of Silage, Slurry, and Agricultural Fuel Oil (SSAFO) require four months’ slurry storage capacity to be in place, but, the report states: “[Farmers] often admitted to taking a business risk by not investing in infrastructure because there was little regulatory presence of the Environment Agency in the catchment and the lack of direct pay back. Instead they have been investing in housing and robotic milking systems which will increase herd size and put more pressure on existing infrastructure.”

In 2017, the number of farm visits required to meet the national Key Performance Indicator (KPI) for the whole of Devon, Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly area was halved to 65 visits (0.5% of farms per annum). The report reveals that on this basis, most farmers on the Axe would not expect a visit in their lifetimes.

The report concludes that there has to be a mix of advice, funding for improvements, and the very real threat of regulatory enforcement if farmers are to become fully compliant.


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