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Wales draft regulations for farming and water published

The long-awaited Welsh regulations for farming and water appear to hand initiative to farmers

As some of you who read the hard copy of Fly Fishing & Fly Tying Magazine will know, I write comment / analysis pieces for the magazine, usually interview based, two of which come to mind are about the pros and cons of salmon hatcheries  (FF&FT May 2019) and cormorant predation on our fisheries (Oct 2019).

These are longer stories, I speak to a lot of people, and they take some time to put together. I thought a good use of this blog, that people who are interested in fishing and the environment might be interested in, would be to give updates on areas I’m looking into, as I go along.

I am deep into slurry at the moment. I’ve covered it twice so far in the hard copy magazine. First in FF&FT Feb 2020 when we exclusively reported an Environment Agency report into a clampdown on the River Axe which revealed that 95% of farms were not complying with slurry storage regulations and 49% of farms were polluting the River Axe.

Then in March 2020 we discussed the implication of the report and brought Wales’ (then) imminent farming and water regulations into the discussion.

Wales has been keeping us on the edge of our seats, when it comes to regulating the farming industry. England introduced its Farming Rules for Water in April 2018. Wales has been promising its own version for so long that they are in danger of becoming known as the Godot regulations - we wait and we wait, but they never turn up.

Then finally, just before the Easter Bank Holiday weekend, Lesley Griffiths, Welsh Minister for Environment, Energy and Rural Affairs, had her ‘Act Two, Scene One: Enter Godot’ moment with the publication of draft Water Resources (Control of Agricultural Pollution) (Wales) Regulations 2020.

The pendulum swing of opinion was soon mapped out and marked at one end by Simon Evans, Wye & Usk Foundation CEO, who took to Twitter and said: “Given the catastrophic pollution of Welsh rivers, this is a pathetic response by Welsh Government,” and at the other by NFU Cymru President John Davies who said: “Following the Minister’s statement today we will continue to strongly oppose the introduction of this deeply damaging legislation. We will pursue every avenue available to us and continue to work tirelessly with our members in the hope that we can prevent the introduction of this damaging and disproportionate regulation.”

For those on the conservation side of the argument, the draft regulations are not without fault, but neither are they without teeth. Currently only 3% of Wales is designated as a Nitrate Vulnerable Zone (NVZ). Under these draft regulations, all of Wales would be so designated, and subject to rules to tackle nitrate loss from agriculture, thus maintaining and extending EC rules on NVZs after we have left the EU.

This might in part explain the farmers’ furious reaction to it.

But the main objection conservationists have to this draft regulation is the phrase ‘earned autonomy’. It is a term that Lesley Griffiths has used on a number of occasions and it seems in this context to mean something vaguely to do with a voluntary approach, rather than a regulatory one. It is used again in the explanatory note that accompanied the publication of these draft regulations, which says:

“The draft Regulations include a requirement on the Welsh Government to review the regulations. This includes a requirement to consider any proposals for an alternative suite of measures, within 18 months of the Regulations coming into force. This would provide the agricultural industry with the opportunity to develop an earned autonomy approach, alternative measures which would be more effective in delivering the outcomes than those specified in the draft Regulations.”

Interestingly, the term ‘earned autonomy’ doesn’t appear once in the draft Regulations themselves. In fact, the draft Regulations say only that: (Part 8 45 (2))

“If the Welsh Ministers are satisfied that proposals submitted [by the farmers] would be more effective in delivering the outcomes [...] they must publish a statement within two years of these Regulations coming into force, explaining what action will be taken.”

I am not a lawyer, but this would seem to commit the Welsh Government to precisely zilch either way.

I have so far failed to get a satisfactory definition of ‘earned autonomy’ in this context. What I have heard falls into two camps. One, it means that the farmers with earned autonomy could operate entirely outside the regulations. And two, they will not be subject to reporting procedures and the administrative burden, but if they breach the objectives of the regulations, then they will still be subject to fines.

So here we have the Welsh Government finally publishing a set of draft regulations, that will not be introduced until after the Covid-19 crisis, that will then give farmers 18 months to offer an alternative that may grant them ‘earned autonomy’ (which remains as yet undefined in this context) and to which the government must respond within two years of introduction to explain what action they will take, options which are unspecified.

The farmers have been reluctant to take part in the consultation process regarding the drawing up of these regulations so far. This is either a very clever ploy on the part of Lesley Griffiths to force the farmers’ hand for a very public consultation, or it is a kick of the can so far down the road Paul Thorburn would be proud of her.

Meanwhile, during all these political shenanigans, the pollution of Welsh rivers by the dairy farming industry goes on.

There are many streams that flow into the decision making process when these regulations are being formulated. One is from the sub-group on Agricultural Pollution on the Wales Land Management forum, which aims to develop new ways of thinking, gathers and reviews evidence, and feeds into policy areas.

The agenda and minutes for the sub-group have not been published since September 2019. It is now the middle of April 2020. I don’t know what is in those minutes, but it was an interesting period of the ‘will they / won’t they’ when it comes to the publication of these regulations, so I’ve put in a request to see them.

Coming soon will be milk: there’s a lot of it about at the moment because the market has collapsed due to the Covid-19 crisis. In response, NRW has relaxed its rules regarding the spreading of milk on agricultural land. Guess where those who look after our rivers are worried the glut might end up?

And what about the soil? The draft Water Resources (Control of Agricultural Pollution) (Wales) Regulations 2020 concentrates on slurry, but ignores the concerns of those other regions of Wales - a major pollutant of rivers is soil.



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