Welsh farming regulations to cut river pollution could be scrapped

The Welsh Government's attempts to introduce plans to reduce agricultural pollution, especially slurry, face intense political opposition, says Andrew Griffiths

Slurry is a serious polluter of rivers in Wales

Regulations designed to end Wales’ dismal record on agricultural pollution could be scrapped altogether following a debate to be held in the Senedd next week (Wednesday 3rd March 2021).

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The regulations, which will require farmers to better manage slurry and prevent it entering water courses, are due to be introduced on April 1st.

Next week’s debate will be held in a Senedd gearing up for May 6th elections. Plaid Cymru has tabled a motion that the regulations be annulled, while a Conservative motion to reverse the all-Wales NVZ – a key plank of the regulations – was narrowly defeated on Wednesday 24th February.

This would frustrate the introduction of  regulations intended to tackle a pollution record that Environment and Rural Affairs Minister Lesley Griffiths has previously described as being “embarrassing” for Wales, and “unacceptable” to rural communities “which depend on tourism, angling and food industries”.

“We continue to face a rate of more than three agricultural pollution incidents per week, and against such a backdrop, we are bound to do all we can to protect the public and the environment.” said Griffiths when announcing the introduction of the regulations on 27th January.

“I have given the industry every opportunity over the past four years to address the issue and bring those who are polluting our rivers in line with the many farmers who care for the environment.” the Minister continued.

The 2020 State of Natural Resources Report says that 66% of Wales’ rivers fail to meet good ecological status, and a Natural Resources Wales (NRW) report published in January of this year revealed that over 60% of protected rivers in Wales exceeded phosphate limits – the major cause of elevated phosphates is diffuse agricultural pollution.

The new regulations would be phased in over 3 1/2 years and would have the greatest impact on Wales’ 1600 dairy farms. NRW estimate that 50% of such farms do not have sufficient storage space to manage slurry effectively, and the Government has committed £44m to upgrade infrastructure. The introduction of regulations to manage farming practices near water would bring Wales in line with England and Scotland.

But farming unions fiercely oppose the introduction of the regulations, which would make the whole of Wales a Nitrate Vulnerable Zone (NVZ).

NFU Cymru President John Davies, while claiming that “one pollution incident is one too many”, said: “NFU Cymru is absolutely clear that an all-Wales NVZ is indiscriminate and punitive. It will affect every farmer, every sector and every area of Wales who will be subject to draconian record keeping, complex restrictions on the day-to-day running of their businesses and, for many, exorbitant costs.”

The farming unions, a powerful political lobby in Wales, favour a voluntary approach, but environmental groups point to the abysmal pollution record under such a voluntary framework and broadly support the introduction of the new regulations.

Gail Davies-Walsh, newly appointed CEO of Afonydd Cymru (Wales’ Rivers Trust) said: “We are calling on the Senedd to push this one through now, it has been a long time in coming. The impact on the environment is only getting worse. These regulations need to come in and they need to come in quickly.”

Davies-Walsh is combining her new job with that of Head of Natural Capital at the Wye and Usk Foundation (WUF) a role which puts her on the frontline of agricultural pollution, tackling the high phosphate levels in the River Wye and the intensive poultry farming operations along its banks.

Davies-Walsh sees the introduction of a proper regulatory framework as an opportunity for farmers to develop new markets.

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“There are opportunities here for [farmers] to improve and increase their yields without spending money on fertilisers unnecessarily. There is a market here to farm sustainably.” says Davies-Walsh. “There is a huge opportunity for the Rivers Trust to work with farmers and develop these markets.”