‘You can’t sleep – it’s a constant worry’ Farmers plea to Welsh Government to rethink agricultural pollution rules

A farmer from Lampeter has called on the Welsh Government to reconsider new rules on agricultural pollution.

Andrew Jones, 66, has been farming near the Teifi river for nearly half a century. Now, he says the cost to comply with the new legislation is “just not worth it.”

“Between everything, I fear it will cost me at least £100,000. I would give up farming, but because of my son, I’m sticking at it. I want him to have an opportunity to farm here too.”

“My friends have all retired, but now I have this added burden,” he told Dot Davies on S4C’s flagship current affairs programme, Y Byd ar Bedwar.

“You feel the stress, you can’t sleep... it’s a constant worry.”

In January this year, the Welsh Government announced that the whole of Wales would become a ‘Nitrate Vulnerable Zone’, or NVZ – an area where water is at risk from nitrate pollution, mainly caused by agricultural slurry and fertiliser. The aim of the regulations are to tackle agricultural pollution incidents - which according to the Welsh Government remain very high, averaging over three per week in the last three years. 

Y Byd ar Bedwar found that there were nearly 600 incidents of agricultural pollution in Welsh rivers since 2017. Credit: Y Byd ar Bedwar

The new rules, which came into force on 1 April 2021, will be introduced in stages over the next three years. The rules include strict periods in which spreading slurry is not allowed, upgrading storage facilities to a capacity of at least five months, and covering storage facilities to reduce the amount of rain that can fall on top of the slurry, which increases its volume. 

Andrew feels these changes are “far too strict.” He is calling on the Minister for Rural Affairs, Lesley Griffiths, to “rethink, and use a little more common sense.”

“Lesley Griffiths promised not to change any legislation during Covid. She’s been ruthless in introducing them now.”

"It’s about getting that balance and it's really important that we crack this,” says Minister for Rural Affairs, Lesley Griffiths. Credit: Y Byd ar Bedwar

In response, Lesley Griffiths said that the decision was “not ruthless at all. It took me five years.”

“Just since this year we’ve had 76 substantiated agricultural pollution incidents, so even while it’s being talked about, we’re still unfortunately getting this number of incidents. It’s about getting that balance and it's really important that we crack this.”

In a Freedom of Information request to Natural Resources Wales, the body tasked with protecting resources such as rivers, Y Byd ar Bedwar found that there were nearly 600 incidents of agricultural pollution in Welsh rivers since 2017. Nearly half of these were due to slurry.

The Freedom of Information request also found that Carmarthenshire was the area with the highest number of agricultural pollution incidents in Wales over the last four years, with the area accounting for 20% of all cases in Wales. 

The rules for farmers include strict periods in which spreading slurry is not allowed and upgrading storage facilities. Credit: Y Byd ar Bedwar

Andrew Jones added, “If those from Carmarthenshire were actually fined, then that could have solved the problem, instead of making others like me, have to pay the price when there’s no need.” 

Since 2017 there have been just two prosecutions relating to agricultural pollution in Welsh rivers. Natural Resources Wales took enforcement action in a further 27 cases, resulting in cautions, warnings, civil sanctions, notices or the issuing of advice and guidance. Two cases are still ongoing.

In response, Lesley Griffiths said “I think it’s really important that enforcement takes place – obviously, Natural Resources Wales are the body we look to for enforcement. I think certainly we haven’t seen enough people prosecuted. Natural Resources Wales tell me they do as much enforcement as they can.”

As well as the financial strain, Andrew, who has a dairy herd of 85 cows, is concerned about the mental health impact on farmers.

“I’ve sadly lost one friend this year – the burden was too much for him. It’s no wonder that people talk about farmers’ mental health and high suicide rates, because it’s real. And this is a massive blow.”

Andrew fears the repercussions of the new rules saying “family farms give stability to the countryside, to the industry and to the language.” 

Among those that have noticed the effect of pollution on rivers is former international Welsh rugby player and keen fisherman, Sir Gareth Edwards.

Gareth Edwards fishing with his grandson. Credit: Y Byd ar Bedwar

Gareth first picked up a rod when he was six years old, and since then he has traveled around the world fishing. 

“It’s such a pleasure to go out, and not only to catch the fish, but the feeling you get when you hold the rod. You can’t describe it... Your heart goes crazy!”

The Freedom of Information request to NRW shows over the past 4 years, there have been 35 incidents of agricultural pollution on the river Tywi. Gareth says he has noticed a change in the river. 

“I used to come here and see fish like an oil slick – maybe a hundred of them, and a hundred sewin lying in the pool. It’s hard to believe that today, we’ve seen one or two.”

“There used to be plenty of fish to catch in rivers all over Wales. Our country was one of the best for fish such as bramble, sewin and salmon.”

“It’s not as good as it was, but we have to try and get the state of the rivers back to what it used to be.”

According to Dylan Roberts, Head of Fisheries at the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust, the state of rivers is “extremely poor”.

“Nutrients from agriculture cause things like algae to grow unnaturally. That then suffocates the life in the river.”

“If you go back to the 70’s, 80’s and compare that to now, the number of salmon and sewin that come into our rivers has fallen by around 70 - 80%.”

He said that this has a knock on effect on the Welsh economy too.

“People from all over the world would come fishing in Wales for sea trout. But with less fish to catch, it has a big impact on the local economy as there’s no fish here for them to catch.”

Last month, the Welsh Parliament voted for a review of the new rules, and the new legislation will be looked at again by a committee of members.

A Welsh Government spokesperson said: “It will be a matter for the committee to decide what the review will look at.”

“The focus must now be on implementation of the regulations to address the unacceptable levels of pollution and we welcome discussions on effectively delivering this.”

In a statement, Natural Resources Wales said they take their responsibilities for ensuring water quality seriously and this includes taking enforcement action where appropriate. They said "regulation and enforcement are only two elements needed to tackle agricultural pollution" and should be used in combination with advice, guidance, education and investment.

Watch Y Byd ar Bedwar at 8:25pm on Wednesday 30th June on S4C and iPlayer, with English subtitles available.