Devon farm inspector met with violent threats

Dirty dairy farmers killing our rivers – Owl

An inspector was met with threats of violence at the start of a project in North Devon to check if farms were complying with rules to protect water quality, a report from the Environment Agency says. The study found nine out 10 of livestock businesses visited around the Taw Estuary were either causing pollution or breaking regulations.

Edward Oldfield www.devonlive.com

The project discovered a ‘surprising’ level of ‘complacency’ towards environmental rules and planning law on the farms that were visited, probably due to years of cutbacks in inspection visits. Details emerged in the report on the four-year project funded by the Environment Agency to improve the quality of waterways feeding the River Taw, which have been judged as poor or moderate due to pollution from cattle waste and fertiliser from the mostly dairy farms in the area.

An inspector visited 101 of the larger farms in the project area from 2016 to 2020. They found 66 were causing pollution, and in total 87% were either causing pollution or failed to comply with rules to protect the environment. The unannounced inspection visits resulted in advice in most cases, although there is one ongoing case of enforcement action.

The report, obtained by The Guardian under a Freedom of Information request, said the number of frontline inspection staff had been cut back in the last 15 years, which meant most farmers could expect to never have a visit during their lifetime. It said: “This may have led to complacency about regulations and a general reluctance to engage with the Environment Agency. The officer was subjected to hostility, aggression, and threats of physical violence at the start of the project, but there has been a marked change in attitude and some farmers will now contact the officer for advice.”

The officer was able to refer farmers to sources of advice and funding to improve the infrastructure on their farms, to meet regulations and reduce the risk of pollution affecting the waterways.

The 200 square kilometre area of North Devon was identified for the project, along with the River Axe in East Devon, due to concerns over the influence of farming on water quality. The inspections found problems with low quality infrastructure leading to poor management of slurry, run-off from fields rich in nutrients, and the use of fertiliser.

The area focused on was made up the catchments for the River Caen, Bradiford Water and River Yeo (Barnstaple), all of which discharge into the Taw Torridge Estuary. The Bradiford Water, Lower River Caen and Lower River Yeo were assessed as in Poor condition and the rest as Moderate.

The report said there was evidence that agriculture has a major influence on the quality of rivers. It said the low water quality in the surrounding area affected the Taw Torridge Estuary and “poses a significant risk” to bathing waters in the area, which has also seen salmon stocks continue to decline.

The estuary has protected status for shellfish, is a bass nursery, and a migration route for salmon, eels, elvers and shad in an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and a Unesco Biosphere Reserve. The report said the estuary waters are “failing” due to high levels of dissolved inorganic nitrogen, algae, and faecal indicators, mostly from livestock, in the shellfish waters and the beach at Instow, which has had its bathing water status removed.

The estuary discharges into Bideford Bay and can affect bathing waters from Westward Ho! to the south, through to Saunton Sands, Croyde, Putsborough and Woolacombe beaches to the north, all popular tourist destinations for water sports and vital to the area’s multi-million pound visitor economy.

The report said South West Water had invested to reduce nitrates from the major works discharging to the estuary serving Barnstaple and the surrounding area. It added: “However, the catchment continues to fail its water quality targets and it is postulated that this is mainly due to nutrient enrichment from dairy farming.”

The report said farmers in recent years had come under “intense commercial pressure” from low milk prices to expand dairy herds, often without increasing the size of storage for cattle waste, a mixture of manure and water known as slurry which is used as fertiliser. In some cases, DIY projects built without planning permission and ignoring guidelines can overflow or fail and cause pollution. The report adds: “When slurry stores have catastrophic failures, as well as risks to the environment, there is a real risk of injury or death from the physical failure of the structure or drowning.”

It said the dairy sector has “high potential” to release sediment, nitrate and phosphorus to rivers. The Taw Estuary is classed as a Nitrate Vulnerable Zone, which means it has a closed season for fertiliser and manure spreading, but winter spreading often took place, often on saturated soils.

The report said there was “particular concern” at the widespread lack of compliance with slurry storage rules, which required five months of storage. The report said non-compliance with regulations and planning rules “appeared widespread”. It added: “Considering the cost of these stores, this is surprising and indicates a complacency towards environmental regulations and planning law, something that would not be so prevalent in other regulated industries.”

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