Dorset farmers battle England’s new river pollution curbs

At high tide, the inland tidal lakes of Poole Harbour on southern England’s Dorset coast look like pristine wetland. But when the sea recedes a dirty secret is revealed: dense mats of slimy green algae that choke the shoreline.

Tough new Environment Agency targets to reduce the amount of nitrogen and phosphorus from farms and sewage entering the water courses that flow into the harbour are expected to reduce the algae. But farmers in the area warn that the clean-up plan puts their businesses at risk, while failing to pressure water companies to clean up their act.

This argument is set to be replicated with growing frequency across England as the government seeks to cut the agricultural pollution of rivers, streams and estuaries by 40 per cent during the next 15 years.

“Let’s go faster, but not in a way that puts us out of business and lets some of the biggest polluters off the hook,” said Gerard Wynn, a Dorset farmer and environmental analyst leading a campaign to delay the imposition of the nitrogen cuts in Poole.

Gerard Wynn says cutting nitrogen use too rapidly could put local farmers out of business © Neil Turner/FT

Under the new targets, farmers above the harbour catchment area will be required to cut the amount of nitrogen leaching from their soils to 18kg per hectare, per year — a huge reduction from the current typical nitrogen losses of 50kg per hectare for an arable farm.

At one of 600 farms that feed into the Poole Harbour catchment area, a group of more than 30 farmers gathered in late August to organise opposition to the new measures.

Everyone present agreed that Poole Harbour needed cleaning up, but the meeting quickly became animated over the Environment Agency targets and what they would mean for the economic viability of their farms.

The agency suggested farmers could achieve the 18kg target by planting crops in the spring instead of winter, when higher rainfall washes more nitrogen out of the soil.

An aerial view of Poole Harbour
Poole Harbour, which is a site of international importance for nature conservation © Cambridge Aerial Photography/Alamy

However, farmers say this ignores the fact that winter crops are far more lucrative and reliable than their spring counterparts and are vital to the economic viability of farms that are already seeing shrinking subsidies as a result of Brexit.

“There’s been no cost-benefit analysis at all by the government. Saying ‘no’ to winter cropping is not a solution when you look at profit margins — on my farm it was £235 per acre for winter wheat in 2020 compared with £130 for spring barley,” said Wynn.

The farmers cite a 2018 report by ADAS, an environmental consultancy, which calculated that to hit the most stringent target for reducing pollution into Poole Harbour, about 45 per cent of arable land would need to be retired and livestock numbers cut by a third.

They are divided over a trial scheme endorsed by the National Farmers’ Union lobby group, which would allow some farmers to adopt the target more gradually, beginning with a 26kg limit next year.

Gerard Wynn hosts a meeting at Watcombe Farm for local farmers to discuss the nitrogen targets
Gerard Wynn hosts a meeting at Watcombe Farm for local farmers to discuss the nitrogen targets © Neil Turner/FT

One farmer at the meeting who asked to remain anonymous said the NFU had been “spineless” in representing them at the Environment Agency. “They’re the farmer’s voice, but they are not saying the things that farmers want said,” he added.

Tom Bradshaw, deputy president of the NFU, said farmers wanted to avoid the imposition of an even more draconian official water protection zone, which would force Poole Harbour farmers to apply for permits for the use of any controlled substances, including liquid fertilisers.

“For me, a collaborative approach to finding a solution has got to be the preferential way forward, and that’s what the scheme is,” he said. “But nobody likes being the guinea pig and there is a lot of nervousness around that.”

The NFU is now requesting a two-year official review period for the project in Poole, during which farmers would submit data using an Environment Agency “nitrate leaching tool” that measures nitrogen losses without risking enforcement action.

This would “give farmers the confidence to take part”, Bradshaw said, adding that fertiliser usage was falling all the time, thanks to increasingly precise application techniques and the current sky-high cost of fertilisers incentivising farmers to reduce usage.

But while farmers protest against the targets at Poole, green groups argue the Environment Agency is not going far enough, or fast enough, to meet its legal obligations to protect the environment.

Two Turnstones feeding at the Poole Harbour shoreline in winter
Two Turnstones feeding at the Poole Harbour shoreline in winter © Bob Gibbons/Alamy

Justin Neal, solicitor at Fish Legal, an environmental group that was party to the 2015 legal case that forced the agency to impose pollution reduction targets on Poole Harbour, said the group was considering returning to court to force the issue further.

Neal conceded that meeting environmental goals would require changes in land use, including for farmers. “You could create huge benefits and reductions in pollution by enforcing those regulations now. It may be that you’d have to go further and the land use has to change as well,” he said.

The Environment Agency said: “Poole Harbour is a site of international importance for nature conservation . . . We recognise that meeting the target for reducing the amount of nitrates entering the water will be challenging for farmers and other organisations. That is why we have been flexible on how the target can be met.

“We are confident that this approach will bring savings on input costs, greater efficiency and more resilience for farmers in the face of climate change.”

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