Farmers bid to reduce river pollution and encourage wildlife

12 November 2012 by Marion O'Sullivan

Cornish farmers are benefitting from improvements to their farms that will also cut pollution levels in the River Fowey, which originates high on Bodmin Moor and runs for about 30 miles until it reaches the sea.

cows wandering into a river

Cows wander into the river

Soils, pesticides and manure from farmland can wash into the river during heavy rain, affecting water quality and wildlife. Farmers lose out as their topsoil disappears and the crops are left without protection from pests. Water companies have to invest more money in cleaning the water, ultimately leading to higher water bills for customers.

South West Water has now invested £360,000 in a pilot project that could be good news for everyone. They have teamed up with the Westcountry Rivers Trust and academics from the University of East Anglia in the scheme, which puts a value on natural resources - in this case clean river water - and pays to help preserve it. The academics used their expertise to design and run the UK's first ever 'valuing nature' auction, in which farmers with land close to the River Fowey have been bidding for cash.

"The auction approach hasn't previously been used in the UK for schemes like this, so it was a bold move by South West Water to give it a go," says Professor Brett Day from the University of East Anglia. "An auction puts much more focus on farmers than other possible schemes."

The project, which is partly funded by the Natural Environment Research Council, is part of South West Water's 'Upstream Thinking' programme of environmental improvements that will ultimately reduce water treatment costs.

"The scheme will reduce the amount of pollutants getting into the river, which in turn will help reduce our costs of cleaning the water for drinking," Martin Ross, environmental manager for South West Water, explains. "And the farmers are getting financial help with their farm improvements so it's a win-win situation."

After the river has been fenced

After the river has been fenced

The auction attracted 41 bids from farmers in the region, and almost half of them succeeded in securing money to help with improvements. South West Water will pay for part or all of the cost, up to a maximum of £50,000 per farm.

Bodmin farmer Trevor Hoskins has made a successful funding bid. 'Basically we need to increase the slurry storage that we've got now to make sure that we're not spreading slurry at the wrong time of year,' he says. 'And with the watercourse; well we've got the river running through the valley and at the moment the animals go through the river to get from one side of the valley to the other. So we thought we could fence that off which would stop them treading in the water as much.'

"We asked farmers to look at a range of improvements that could reduce potential pollutants from soil and animals getting into the River Fowey," says the Westcountry Rivers Trust's Dr Laurence Couldrick. "The options included things like building a slurry pit, installing a roof over their yard or manure store, or fencing the land near to the river inlets to prevent cattle from straying into the water."

"Farmers could also choose to brush up on pesticide management techniques to ensure that the timing of their crop spraying is at its most effective, and the type of pesticide used is the easiest to clean up if it does get into the water," he adds.

The team wants to encourage farmers to slow down water draining off the land. One way to do that is to create a buffer between the farmland and the river. These raised buffer strips are planted with vegetation to trap soil as it is washed away during heavy rainfall.

"At the moment everything is designed to drain as fast as possible, like a corrugated iron roof," said Ross. "And if we don't capture it as it goes past then it's into the water and gone. And when everything dries out we have to let water go from the reservoir - and worse, pump water back into the reservoir when it gets too low. All of this uses a huge amount of energy and costs a lot to run, so this scheme will help to make our business more sustainable in the future, and that feeds through into protecting customers' bills."

River Fowey

River Fowey

Around 70 percent of Cornwall's water comes from the River Fowey catchment so Ross hopes the scheme will make the river permanently cleaner. "Treating water that isn't muddy and polluted can save South West Water around 20 percent of operating costs," he said.

Ten years of monitoring also suggests buffer strips are improving water quality. "It starts with little creatures in the water not being smothered in soil," said Ross. "There are better prospects for fish spawning as the breeding gravels aren't being blocked, a big increase in dragonfly populations and more migratory birds. The benefits go right up the food chain."

"There's an indication of a five-fold increase in fish, and an 80 percent reduction in bacteria in the water as a result of putting in buffer strips," he said, "And of course this also protects shellfish waters and bathing waters, and we've got both downstream"

"People might think we're paying farmers who pollute but in fact they are all complying with the legal limits imposed on them. What we're doing is taking them way beyond that so that they become a clean water supplier for us and our customers, as well as running an environmentally safe and economically better farm."

This project is supported and funded by South West Water, the Westcountry Rivers Trust, the University of East Anglia, Defra and the Natural Environment Research Council. NERC's funding supports a Business Internship, which is managed by the Environmental Sustainability Knowledge Transfer Network (ESKTN). The research is linked to Defra's Payments for Ecosystem Services projects and the Valuing Nature Network, part of the Living With Environmental Change partnership.