Most UK dairy farms ignoring pollution rules as manure spews into rivers | Farming

The majority of UK dairy farms are breaking pollution rules, with vast amounts of cow manure being spilled into rivers.

When animal waste enters the river, it causes a buildup of the nutrients found in the effluent, such as nitrates and phosphates. These cause algal blooms, which deplete the waterway of oxygen and block sunlight, choking fish and other aquatic life.

Sixty nine per cent of the 2,475 English dairy farms inspected by the Environment Agency between 2020 and 2021 were in breach of environmental regulations, according to new data released under freedom of information laws.

The problem is prevalent across the UK; in Wales 80% of the 83 dairy farms inspected by Natural Resources Wales between 2020 and 2022 were non-compliant with anti-pollution regulations. In Northern Ireland 50% of the 339 dairy farms inspected by the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs between 2020 and 2022 were not compliant, and in Scotland 60% of the 114 dairy farms initially inspected by the Scottish Environmental Protection Agency between 2020 and 2023 were in breach of regulations.

Campaigners have linked this pollution scandal to that caused by the sewage crisis because it also involves ageing infrastructure and intensification of effluent discharges.

They say that pricing pressures from supermarkets, where farmers are offered very little for milk, have caused producers to intensify their production by increasing the number of cows they keep.

Charles Watson, the chair of the charity River Action, said: “The unacceptable pollution levels caused by the UK dairy industry is not dissimilar to the current UK sewage pollution crisis: aged infrastructure, designed for much lower volumes of effluent, being overwhelmed by the combination of intensification of use and more volatile weather conditions.”

A pile of steaming manure. Campaigners are calling for better slurry management. Photograph: Wayne Hutchinson/Alamy

“With a herd of 50 cows calculated to be capable of emitting the equivalent amount of pollution as a human settlement of 10,000 people, it is hardly surprising that the dairy industry is placing an unsustainable pollution burden on many river catchments across the country. Meanwhile, yet another chapter in the British river pollution scandal unfolds, our impotent regulators continue to watch on in a solely advisory capacity, and the giant supermarket groups happily count their profits at the cost of the continuous degradation of the environment.”

River Action is calling for dairy processors to offer incentives to farmers who produce milk responsibly, either by less intensive farming or by investing to dispose of cow muck responsibly.

It is also asking for a strengthened response from regulators, asking them to fully enforce existing anti-pollution rules. Many farms go years without inspections because regulators do not have enough staff owing to underfunding. River Action has asked the devolved national bodies responsible to expand and extend existing grant schemes to improve the infrastructure for slurry management.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said: “We have set ambitious legally binding targets to reduce water pollution from agriculture and are taking wide-ranging action to clean up our waterways. This includes investing £74m in slurry infrastructure to help farmers cut agricultural runoff and rolling out new farming schemes to thousands of farmers to deliver environmental benefits and adopt more sustainable practices – all to reduce the amount of nutrients entering rivers.”

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