Our River. Musings of a Herefordshire farmer.…

by | Apr 3, 2024 | News | 0 comments

We have recently been sent the following article by a Herefordshire farmer operating under the nom de plume of “Denzil Tumbleweed”.

Here, as a Herefordshire farmer, I’m attempting to offer a viewpoint, a voice that hasn’t yet been heard amongst the chorus of self-perceived experts commenting on the demise of our rivers. Much of what’s been reported is factually inaccurate, it being misinformation dripping with an anti-farming agenda (and in particular an anti-broiler farming agenda). This has dominated all media types and is propelled by naive celebrities and supposed river ‘guardians’ who want to unearth those responsible, and try to find answers and solutions immediately, when in fact the issues are more nuanced and complicated, and won’t be solved quickly. Even genuinely well intended people have become influenced by what they’ve heard or read, and embark upon accusational finger pointing rather than trying to engage in sensible discussion. This topic is intricate, sometimes puzzling. River systems, nutrients, climate change, production systems, agri business. Add to this emotion, pride, protection. It’s tricky stuff, it demands thought and collaboration from interested parties to deliver the positive outcomes required for our waterways. Farming’s somewhat muted response is because we are generally non-effective orators with little spare time, but this shouldn’t be confused with acceptance of culpability, or for ambivalence, or for a lack of caring for our rivers.


I do, however, need to tackle some of the misinformation. Given what you might have read or heard you’d expect the River Wye to be at unprecedented levels for phosphates, because this is what’s being blamed for the algae blooms it’s experiencing. In fact, the river has lower phosphate levels now than at any point in the last 50 years. Admittedly it is now in breach of its target, but that is as a result of its thresholds being significantly tightened recently. In comparison to other nearby rivers the Wye and Lugg display average phosphate concentrations that are lower than the Avon, the Severn, the Teme, and they fair well nationally too. For phosphates, at least, our rivers should really be considered something of a success. A useful and relevant investigation, therefore, would be to find the reasons why the river is experiencing algae blooms. Perhaps the main contributing factor to this over the last 30 years could, in fact, be the change in climate, for it is known that algae blooms accelerate during periods of warm temperatures, lots of sunlight, and shallow, slow flowing water. The river has always accepted nutrients from a combination of sources (human and agriculture), but the change in climate we have experienced is surely a significant factor that, as yet, has not been part of the discussion and warrants further scrutiny.


With nutrients, an often-discussed topic is the percentage of excess phosphates that are derived from agriculture and from human waste. It’s widely reported to be 70% agriculture and Lancaster University’s Substance Flow Analysis of Phosphate in the Wye substantiated this. But while I welcome Lancaster’s involvement, and their work so far in tracing the flows of nutrients, their numbers are very much work in progress and should be treated as such. By using current data, the updated Lancaster flow analysis showed agriculture’s total phosphate load reducing by 40%. This was largely a result of a much more accurate assessment of the tonnages of poultry litter being produced, and the fact that the amount of phosphate in a tonne of poultry manure has dropped by 40% in the last 10 years, due to changes in feed composition. Lancaster’s flow analysis will be a useful tool as it becomes more precise, but it is by no means a gospel of preachable value. In truth, it would not be surprising for agriculture to be a large contributing factor, because the Wye catchment, and Herefordshire in particular, is dominated by the agricultural industry…in a good way. There’s relatively little heavy industry, manufacturing, or construction, and we are sparsely populated with one city and only small towns. It seems obvious that with this composition of land use and industry, that agriculture will be the prime contributor to the nutrient load, just as the prime contributor would be human in an industrial, urban area. Obviously, emissions from sewage and water treatment works need to be assessed, swiftly addressed, and proportionate responsibility applied. All this makes comparing rivers difficult, and why we shouldn’t vilify a certain industry or sector.  


Herefordshire’s agricultural output is massive and nationally important, and has expanded significantly over the past 50 years. There are elements of this expansion people see as negative, such as poultry units, polytunnels, asparagus and strawberry fields being harvested by dozens of foreign workers, and orchards being sprayed. But this simply displays agricultural development and modernisation, rather than wanton destruction of the countryside. We now ‘home grow’ produce previously shipped and trucked from far away, helping cut food miles and associated carbon emissions. This localised development in produce over the last half century has gone hand in hand with agricultural intensification. Again, a term that conjures negativity and popular disgust, when in fact being a huge agricultural success. We produce more food, for more people, using less land, and in the vast majority of cases do this without detriment to people or the environment. This agricultural modernisation and intensification are a main reason for CO2 emissions per capita declining over the last 40 years, and continuing to do so. Again, an infrequently talked about fact.


Farmers have a responsible part to play during this development and intensification however. Poor operators and bad practice should be identified, and issues rectified appropriately. Repeat offenders should be punished. Farmers collectively need to improve. It is possible though, to farm intensively, producing large quantities of food, but to do so in an environmentally sympathetic way. For example, many farmers across the county are applying poultry manure to fields in a responsible and sustainable way. With their agronomist they study field-by-field soil test analyses and adjust nutrient inputs to meet a certain crop’s nutrient requirements. When spreading manure, they adhere to stringent rules that apply, such as no spread zones against watercourses, and they quickly incorporate the manure into the ground to stabilise it. Modern technology such as weigh cells, headland management tools, and GPS, can all help with these applications. As well as poultry manure being a nutrient resource it is also helpful for improving soil organic matter, and for many farms it is a valuable resource that would only be replaced by inorganic/bagged nutrients if it was unavailable. Many people who bemoan the use of manures in the catchment do not understand agriculture or its production systems sufficiently. We should share this best practice between ourselves and present it positively to a wider audience, something which, as an industry, we haven’t been good at. Pursuit of ever cheaper food has tightened farmer’s margins, in some cases making them more efficient, but in others pushing them to cut corners with little time for anything other than their hard day-to-day work. We run businesses that should make money, but many farmers do not because they are price takers dictated to by world markets and domineering supermarkets.


It’s not all bad news however. Many of these struggling farmers in marginal areas, farm land with the most potential to benefit rivers and wildlife. In time, parts of their farms will be better utilised in environmental schemes, or for biodiversity net gain, or for carbon offsetting, with those farmers being adequately paid for this environmental and public good. It’s a double win. Less agricultural contribution to nutrients in the waterways, and benefits to the environment. Further positive action came recently when Avara Foods accelerated their Sustainable Poultry Roadmap by exporting from the catchment 74% of the manure generated by their contracted farms, with the remaining 26% being subject to higher Red Tractor standards for land application. In fairness to Avara, the manure in the catchment has never belonged to them, it’s owned by the farmers and they are responsible for its application. The poultry industry as a whole is moving towards lower stocking densities, which will further reduce the nutrient load being produced in the catchment. Farmer-led action also accelerated in the last year when a farmer discussion group was formed, majoring on river topics. The aim being to improve knowledge about nutrients and how they move, help farmers complete their farm phosphate balance using a calculator tool, conduct on farm water testing, and gain further understanding of legacy phosphate in soils. To facilitate rapid expansion of this work, regional hubs located by tributary catchments have been formed, and are designed to aid neighbour to neighbour contact, spread best practice, and enable more communal, local action.


Momentum is gathering and things are improving, but it will take time to materialise. Kneejerk reactions to emotional campaigns and battles in court aren’t the way forward. Nor should people categorise all farmers into one group. Some are good, some bad, some old, some young…but we know that a shift in attitudes is occurring. With farmers now being paid adequately to enter environmental schemes, and grants being available to invest in certain technologies, the time has never been better for environmental management and agricultural modernisation to synchronise, and work together in a more cohesive way for the benefit of our rivers.