Two-thirds of the livestock farms in North Devon cause pollution of the rivers

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Government efforts to protect UK rivers have been labeled a “total failure” after two-thirds of Devon’s farms were found to be polluting when they were inspected by the Environment Agency.

Between 2016 and 2020, the agency visited more than 100 cattle farms in North Devon to check compliance levels with environmental regulations, particularly regarding the safe storage and spreading of slurry.

According to the report obtained by the Guardian, nearly nine out of 10 farms did not comply with these regulations and two thirds were causing pollution. [pdf] after a request for freedom of information.

Charles Watson, of the River Action campaign group, said: “The North Devon report provides a damning indictment of the role played by the dairy industry as a major polluter of our rivers, as well as highlighting total bankruptcy. of an Environmental Agency without funds to enforce even basic environmental regulations “.

Activists have previously complained about the state of the UK’s rivers, with intensive chicken farming partly blamed for the decline of the River Wye.

Related:How a Tesco chicken deal may have helped pollute one of the UK’s favorite rivers

Sir James Bevan, Chief Executive of the Environment Agency, told MPs last year that, “statistically, the biggest sector that is affecting our waters, in one way or another, is the agricultural sector. “.

The Devon report covers approximately 20,000 hectares (49,000 acres) of land north of the Taw Estuary and includes the Caen River, Bradiford Water, and the Yeo River, all of which drain into the Taw-Torridge Estuary.

A popular livestock farming region, Devon is home to more cattle than any other county in England. About 80% of the premises inspected were dairy farms.

The report stated that many of the dairy farms inspected had increased the size of their herds due to “intense commercial pressure”. However, they had not expanded their slurry storage to accommodate the higher waste load.

While aware of the requirements for slurry storage, the report states that farmers “often admitted taking the business risk of not investing in infrastructure because there was little regulation in the basin and a lack of direct return.”

Inadequate sewage storage can have serious consequences, with reports of hundreds of fish dying from river pollution accidents in Devon caused by the sewage spill.

The North Devon report worked in tandem with another one covering the Ax drainage basin in East Devon and the results and conclusions of both were strikingly similar.

The Ax report visited 86 dairy farms between 2016 and 2019 and found that 95% did not comply with environmental regulations and 49% were polluting. While the Ax report was published, the North Devon priority area report remained unpublished until the Guardian’s FOI request.

Most of the area covered by the report in the Taw Basin is classified as a “nitrate vulnerable zone”. This requires each farm to hold five months of slurry, but according to the report, few farms have met this condition.

The results were a “harmful indictment” of the agricultural industry and the inability of the Environment Agency to prevent pollution, river activists said. The report says that for the past 15 years “regulation has been minimal” due to the agency’s funding cuts.

As of 2016, there was a target of visiting “0.5% of farms per year,” the report said, which would mean that farmers could “confidently expect that they would not receive an inspection in the course of their life, or perhaps five or six generations of their offspring. ”This” may have led to complacency with regulations and a general reluctance to engage with the Environment Agency. “

At the start of the project, the report stated that the inspecting officer was “subject to hostility, aggression and threats of physical violence”.

Of the 66 farms found to be polluting at the time of the officer’s first visit, the report said the EA “only managed to confirm that 14 stopped their polluting discharges, mainly because we were unable to carry out follow-up visits. up and the farmers did not proactively update us ”.

He noted “a strong belief that the Environment Agency does not have enough officials to double-check and enforce the regulations” and admitted “to some extent this is right”.

Since the report was written, the Environment Agency has tried to recruit 84 more agricultural inspectors. The report states that “almost every farm visited was insured by the red tractor.” The Red Tractor logo aims to offer consumers a guarantee of high standards of environmental protection on farms. The red tractor was contacted for comment.

Watson said the report “raises serious questions about the legitimacy of the red tractor as a credible environmental standard given that virtually every polluting company has been enrolled in its warranty scheme.”

You can send us your stories and thoughts at animalsfarmed@theguardian.com

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