Agriculture is the backbone of the Welsh rural economy and during the first month of my time as the new Chairman of Natural Resources Wales, I’ve become more aware of how farming shapes the countryside around our communities and the influence it has on our environment.
During this first month Lesley Griffiths, the Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs also announced that she intended to introduce new regulations in the Spring aimed at driving down the number of agricultural pollution incidents. I welcome this move, and I’ve written to the Cabinet Secretary to outline how this needs to work alongside other measures that are already underway.
Agriculture has been responsible for between 115 -165 substantiated pollution incidents annually during each of the last eight years, with around half of these linked to dairy farms. Our evidence shows that these incidents are caused be a small minority of farmers - only around 3.8% of dairy farms in Wales are involved in a substantiated pollution incident each year.
And, so, as I travel through Wales, I ponder over where we are, and where we’re going in terms of agriculture in Wales, particularly within the dairy sector.
We know that herd sizes are increasing, which means so is the amount of slurry generated. However, the question that farmers need to ask is do they have the infrastructure and the land availability to manage the safe storage and control of slurry.
Spreading slurry and manure is a beneficial part of farming practice, provided it is done onto land that has the capacity to safely absorb the nutrients. Nutrient management planning is key. Slurry is an important financial resource on farms, potentially providing low cost valuable nutrients, with each cow producing an average value of £78 per year.
However, slurry is also a major pollutant if it enters watercourses. It strips the oxygen from the water and kills river life. Whilst the pollution may pass within hours and the water may run clear, the long-term effect can be devastating. Species such as trout, salmon, dippers and grey wagtails are reliant on insect larvae and crustaceans. When these kinds of invertebrates are killed alongside the fish, the recovery of our streams and rivers can then take many years.
These same streams and rivers provide us with a huge range of benefits in Wales - including a clean drinking water supply, water for business use and recreation opportunities.
So agricultural pollution is a problem that we all need to tackle as part of sustainably managing our natural resources and safeguarding the well-being of future generations.
No silver bullet
There is no one silver bullet to solve this problem – the solution is a combination of different approaches, all of which need to be supported by new ways of thinking.
Effective regulation is one of a range of tools that we have available to us and when we couple it with advice, voluntary initiatives assurance and investment measures and making best use of innovation, it provides a potent mix that will help improve the water quality in our rivers whilst at the same time supporting farming to be a sustainable and thriving industry for the future.
Solving the problem of agricultural pollution needs a joined-up approach. Farmers, agricultural bodies, anglers, regulators, water companies, conservationists and Welsh Government are now working together through the Wales Land Management Forum (WLMF) sub group on agricultural pollution to address the issue collectively.
One of our NRW Board members, Zoe Henderson, chairs this important group.
Several projects are underway by the WLMF members including the appointment of eight new agricultural officers by us in NRW. These officers will work with farmers across Wales, giving advice on how to prevent pollution and comply with regulatory requirements as well as sharing best practice. The aim is to visit around 30% of the 1,700 dairy farms in Wales during this first year.
Farming Connect has mainstreamed a package of awareness, advice and training for farmers across Wales and there is a targeted programme of support for farmers within 28 priority catchments that are significantly affected by agricultural pollution.
Dwr Cymru is expanding its successful PestSmart project; Gelli Aur agricultural college is looking at de-watering innovations; and we’re pleased to be supporting an NFU Cymru led partnership project to take forward the development of a voluntary farmer-led approach to nutrient management.
And these kinds of approaches are already starting to have an impact.
A recent survey on behalf of Menter a Busnes shows that 87% of farmers now rate agricultural pollution as an extremely important topic, and 1047 applications have been made for Nutrient Management Plans under the Farming Connect Advisory Service. In addition, there are now seven newly formed Agrisgôp groups dedicated to tackling agricultural pollution in the Gele, Pendine, Trothy, Lleyn Peninsula, Beacons, Olway and Crychiau catchments.
We need a combination of approaches to tackle agricultural pollution as every farm is different. Using all of the tools now available I think we’re much more likely to achieve the step change in delivery that we’re all seeking. I’m confident that the new regulations that the Cabinet Secretary will announce in the Spring can be introduced in such a way that they can complement, support and build upon the progress made so far.
We have fantastic rivers, lakes and coastal waters in Wales. They play a vital role in the economy and people’s wellbeing and provide a home for important species like salmon and sea trout.
It is in the best interests of everyone that we all help and collectively to tackle this ongoing and unacceptable problem.