Farming destroyed UK rivers to meet food demand – here’s how we fix it

CF2MRN Sheep grazing on the banks of the River Till at Twizel, a tributary of the River Tweed.

Manure from livestock releases nitrogen and phosphorus into many UK rivers, including the Till

Jim Gibson/Loop Images Ltd/Alamy

THE rolling English farmland of Dorset, Somerset and Devon might look like a bucolic idyll, but looks can be deceptive. These three counties in the country’s south-west are home to hundreds of intensive dairy farms, producing almost a quarter of the UK’s milk. Thousands of cows create a smelly problem for farmers: what to do with all the dung? As I drive along the winding country lanes, the stench drifting off nearby fields offers a clue.

My nostrils aside, it is local rivers that bear the brunt. In wet weather, slurry (manure plus water) overflows from silos where it is stored and runs off land into waterways, wreaking havoc on their ecology. The situation is particularly bad in the south-west, but this is a nationwide problem – and it isn’t the only damage that agriculture does to rivers. Over recent decades, pressure from supermarkets to provide plentiful food at low prices has pushed farmers to boost livestock numbers, use more fertilisers and pesticides to increase crop yields and remove hedgerows to make larger, more efficient fields. All these actions have knock-on effects, polluting watercourses with soil sludge, toxic chemicals and excess nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus.

As in other countries, the UK has legislation to reduce the ecological damage caused by farming. But enforcing these rules isn’t always easy, even when environment agencies make them a priority. No wonder the UK’s rivers are in such a bad state. It sounds like the perfect storm, but, in my …

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