Destruction of river ecology by agriculture

The Angling Trust has released a 3‑minute video to highlight the impacts of agriculture on the ecology of rivers, in particular on fish and the invertebrates on which they feed. The video has been released to coincide with publication of a major investigation into the problem of agricultural pollution by the Bureau for Investigative Journalism, published in The Guardian.

The Environment Agency’s 2016 report on pollution incidents can be viewed here.

The top reasons for water courses failing to achieve Good Ecological Status as required by the EU Water Framework Directive can be viewed here

Agricultural practices pollute rivers by causing excessive water to run off the surface of the land into brooks, streams and rivers, taking with it soil, pesticides, fertilisers and slurry. This kills fish, invertebrates and plant life – reducing fish populations for anglers to target and consequently destroying the economic benefits that angling brings to rural areas in particular. Furthermore, agricultural pollution leads to pollution of public water supplies, higher bills for water customers and council tax-payers, flooding of homes and businesses, damage to the shellfish industry and even road traffic accidents from increased mud and debris on rural roads.

Most agricultural pollution incidents are minor, but when there are thousands of them they add up to the progressive death of rivers, lakes and ponds by a thousand cuts. Half of all freshwater species are in decline and 13% are threatened with extinction. Fewer than 1 in 6 water bodies in England and Wales achieve Good Ecological Status required by the EU Water Framework Directive and the principal reason for this, other than the physical modification of rivers, is diffuse rural pollution, which largely arises from agriculture, according to Environment Agency data. In many areas, the problems have grown significantly worse over the past decade as a result of the vast expansion of maize production to feed anaerobic digesters, the intensification of dairy farming and the rapid growth in poultry farms.

Agriculture is also now responsible for the largest number of the most serious (category 1) pollutions of any sector, above sewage and industry. These are catastrophic for river ecology and angling because they cause significant fish kills, which can have an impact on stocks for decades.

The video has been produced as part of the Angling Trust’s Save Our Salmon campaign, which is supported by readers of Trout & Salmon magazine and the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation, a leading charitable trust. Agricultural pollution has been a key reason for the decline of Atlantic salmon stocks in England and Wales. In fact, only this year thousands of adult and juvenile salmon have been killed in slurry pollution incidents in Wales alone.

The Angling Trust has in recent years worked with WWF-UK to take legal action against the government for failing to tackle diffuse pollution of protected water bodies. This legal action resulted in a court order requiring the Environment Agency to consider implementing Water Protection Zones where voluntary measures have failed to deliver water quality improvements required by international law.

Mark Lloyd, Chief Executive of the Angling Trust & Fish Legal said: Government figures demonstrate that there is an endemic problem with pollution from agriculture in England and Wales. The regulatory system is currently failing. The issue seems to be partly the responsibility of lots of different agencies and authorities and government policy has driven light touch regulation for too long. Billions of pounds of taxpayers’ money are spent on subsidising an industry which causes higher water bills, more flooding and a decline in wildlife. There are of course many responsible farmers who manage their land well; they are increasingly frustrated to see so many of their neighbours cutting corners and causing damage to the environment which costs everyone in society dearly. Action is needed to save our rivers now – fish stocks cannot wait until the post-Brexit arrangements for agricultural subsidies are finalised to stop being poisoned and suffocated.”