Water Industry News

What Is Catchment Sensitive Farming?

Understanding how and where human activity has an impact on the natural environment is key to finding the most effective solutions to resolve the various issues.


Agriculture has one of the biggest impacts of all industries, particularly where water is concerned, contributing to water pollution through the leaching of pesticides, fertilisers and manure, as well as an increase in sediments.


Rain can wash fertiliser from the fields into local waterways or cause soluble nutrients to make their way into groundwater, while pesticides can also be washed into rivers, lakes and streams by rainfall. They may also enter waterways if sprayed too close to water sources or enter groundwater through soil infiltration.


Erosion is another issue, potentially washing topsoil into waterways, which can carry phosphates and agrichemicals along with them.


All of this is problematic because high levels of nutrient concentrations (especially phosphorus), can lead to eutrophication, where nutrient enrichment leads to excessive growth of algae and macrophytes, which reduces dissolved oxygen levels and puts aquatic life at risk.


Estimates suggest that agriculture makes up approximately 61 per cent of all nitrogen in river water across England and Wales, as well as around 28 per cent of the phosphorus content in river water throughout Great Britain.


In 2009, the Water Framework Directive was implemented to help monitor water quality around the country, assessing this in terms of ecological, chemical and hydrological quality.


As of 2020, just 36 per cent of waterways assessed under the directive were classified as either high or good status, with diffuse water pollution from rural land management and agriculture directly attributed to 28 per cent of failures.


Surface waters that boast good status are able to support a diverse range of aquatic fish, invertebrates, mammals and birds… and the aim is to reach good chemical and ecological status in both inland and coastal waters by 2027 at the very latest.


To help tackle agriculture-based water pollution, the government has now expanded its Catchment Sensitive Farming (CSF) programme to ensure that farmers, land managers and growers across England are able to take advantage of the advice available.


The project, run by Natural England, the Environment Agency and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, was set up to raise awareness of diffuse pollution from agriculture through the provision of free training and advice to farmers in selected regions in England to improve the environmental performance of farms.


The two principal aims are: to save farms money by bringing in appropriate nutrient and pesticide planning, reduce soil losses and help farmers meet obligations like nitrate vulnerable zones; and to deliver environmental benefits by reducing water pollution, making drinking water cleaner and bathing water safer, as well as supporting biodiversity and reducing flood risks.


In order to help farmers achieve these goals, practical solutions and targeted support are delivered through CSF, enabling land managers to take voluntary action to reduce water pollution and afford the environment and waterways greater levels of protection.


Independent specialists from the farming community are also on hand to provide free advice that’s tailored to the specific regions and farming sectors, with advice including farm events, individual site appraisal and workshops. Capital grants are also available, at up to 60 per cent of the total funding, to drive improvements in farm infrastructure.


Since 2006, 24,000 farms have benefited from participating in the CSF programme, helping farmers take over 80,000 positive actions to drive down pollution. Since then, nitrogen levels have been reduced by four per cent, while phosphorus levels have dropped eight per cent and a 12 per cent reduction in sediment has been seen.


Director of national operations at Natural England Jen Almond said: “We are rolling out Catchment Sensitive Farming advice to all farmers in England to help them produce food in a way that protects our water, air and soil whilst minimising losses and maximising efficiencies.


“Our advisers provide valuable advice on agricultural transition schemes and grants, natural flood management, and how sustainable farming practices can deliver the greatest environmental gains across the whole country.”


Land managers, owners and farmers have a legal responsibility to promote sustainable water usage and consumption and avoid pollution, since nutrients, pesticides, faecal bacteria and sediment can have serious impacts on drinking and bathing water, as well as ecological, business and recreational water uses.


Any pollution incidents must be reported immediately to the Environment Agency so that the appropriate protection measures can be implemented as soon as possible.


Steps must be taken to prevent pollution in the first instance, however, especially when rearing and managing livestock, using pesticides and herbicides, treating and disposing of wastewater, using spray irrigation, washing down yards and barns, storing oil and fuel, using manures and slurries, and so on.


It is also an offence to pollute groundwater or surface water with wastewater or polluted runoff from fields. This can happen relatively easily through chemical spreading, waste and sewage sludge, poor soil management and slurry or dirty water (which must be properly contained within a well-constructed store).


If land managers fail to comply with a permit or exemption, cause or knowingly allow water pollution to take place, enforcement action will be taken by the Environment Agency on an individual case by case basis.


Criminal or civil sanctions may be used, taking into account the risks to people and the environment, the seriousness of the breach of the law, the impact on the environment, people and legitimate business and the impact on economic growth.


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