South East Rivers Trust (& the Wandle Trust)

Better farming practices to help our rivers

The new Farming Rules for Water

From April this year farmers across the country will be following a new set of guidelines that allow them to manage their land in a way that has benefits for them as well as for our rivers, lakes and coastal waters. We welcome this step by the Department for Environment and Rural Affairs (Defra) which will encourage farmers to think about water pollution and the positive steps they can take to reduce their impacts on our wonderful rivers – you can’t turn your nose up at that!

Water pollution is a big issue for rivers, and modern agricultural practices unfortunately play a big part in degrading water quality, especially in rural areas across this green and pleasant land. The manure and manufactured fertilisers that farmers add to their land contain vital nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus that plants need to help them grow healthily.  But when it rains, these nutrients can easily be carried away from the fields, and drain into rivers and other nearby waterbodies. This is called diffuse water pollution, and agriculture is responsible for about a third of the diffuse water pollution in the UK. Although individual incidents may only have a small impact, collectively they can be very damaging. Lakes, rivers and streams cover only 2% of the landscape but the composition of their water reflects the combination of every activity taking place in the area of land they drain (their catchment). These accumulated nutrient levels cause fast growing algae to boom, smothering wildlife and damaging these sensitive ecosystems.

Topsoil is also a valuable resource for farmers because this is where plants lay down their roots. A nice thick layer of good quality topsoil will contain all the nutrients that plants need to survive. Grass provides a great source of food for many farm animals and its roots help to bind the nutrient-rich topsoil together to stop it washing away. As livestock walks across the grass, the animals’ feet can cause damage to the turf, especially in wet and muddy conditions. This is called ‘poaching’ and can increase soil erosion, causing our rivers to run brown after rainfall, which affects the fish and insects which live in them.

Defra’s new Farming Rules for Water will help with these problems:

Farmers must test the soil in their fields every 5 years for nutrients like phosphorus and nitrogen. This allows them to better plan how much fertiliser they need to add to make sure the needs of their crops are met but not exceeded; saving them money and improving water quality in the process.

Fertilisers must be stored in a way that doesn’t pose a significant risk of pollution, and they shouldn’t be applied close to rivers and other waterbodies. By not spreading fertilisers on waterlogged or frozen ground, farmers can increase the rate of retention in their fields and less of the nutrients will be washed away.

Reasonable precautions must be taken to reduce soil erosion, and livestock feeders should be positioned away from rivers, lakes and springs. Any land within 5 metres of fresh or coastal waters will have to be protected from soil erosion by preventing poaching by livestock.

A full list of the rules can be found here:

Most farmers will already be doing these things through their current farming practices, but these rules will bring all farms up to this higher standard so that everyone is on a level playing field. Steps like these are really positive and will help British farmers be more profitable and be more aware of their potential impacts on the environment, which in turn will help our rivers.