Scrapping farm nature payments may worsen English river pollution up to 20%

Weakening or scrapping the nature-friendly farming payment schemes could increase river pollution by up to 20%, an analysis has found.

Helena Horton 

The payments are due to replace the EU’s area-based payments scheme, in which farmers are paid for the amount of land they manage. The new system would instead pay land managers to provide “public goods” such as enhanced nature and clean rivers.

Liz Truss’s administration made reviewing the upcoming schemes a priority in the few weeks of her premiership, and government sources said the intention was to remove nature restoration from the programme.

However, Sunak’s government appears less hardline on this issue, and sources at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) said a review of the schemes, originally planned for this week, was likely to be delayed, with few if any substantive changes from the original plan.

Removing incentives to create wetlands around waterways and increase biodiversity could mean rivers become more polluted. Every single river in England is polluted beyond legal limits, and 86% are deemed not to be in “good ecological condition”. According to the Environment Agency, agriculture is the reason for 40% of water bodies in England failing to meet good status, due to pollution from animal manures and slurries, the use of chemicals such as pesticides and fertilisers, and soil running off fields, especially in wet weather.

Government analysis, compiled by the water pollution campaign group River Action, has also found that a current localised nature-friendly payment scheme, Countryside Stewardship, reduced river pollution by 2%. However, its impacts are very localised; measures such as the planting of winter crop cover and the creation of ponds to retain runoff can reduce nitrate pollution by 10%, phosphates by 16% and sediment by 20%. This scheme was expected to be brought into the new payments system but strengthened, with further financial benefits for farmers who work across river catchment areas, meaning these local benefits could become more widespread.

Charles Watson, founder and chairman of River Action, said: “Removing the payments that reward these vital environmental measures would leave England’s rivers in an even more polluted and degraded state than they already are.

“The public is looking to the government to sort out this appalling issue and it is abundantly clear that more measures, not fewer, are needed to clean up England’s rivers, protect our wildlife and ensure communities can safely enjoy their local watercourses.”

Farmers and environmentalists have warned that the retained EU law bill, which had its second reading in parliament this week, could also threaten the country’s rivers.

The same government analysis found that regulation and good practice leads to a 7-8% reduction in phosphorus, nitrate and sediment pollution across Britain. The regulations referred to are ones which are enshrined in retained EU law, which the new bill could scrap.